IN 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early and it does something to them. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.” Nearly a century later ‘The Great Gatsby’ author might choose to add, “And they’re also the only members of society who can afford to finance SLAPP cases!”
Short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, SLAPPs are costly gagging orders by another name. They enable super rich individuals and corporations to bully and intimidate the press into silence and prevent any legitimate criticism or tales of misconduct from reaching the public domain.
SLAPPs are achieved though an army of well-paid and aggressive lawyers more than willing to ensure that whatever skeletons their client wants to remain hidden in the closet are kept safely under lock and key.
By threatening extortionate legal costs and wrapping anyone who speaks out with enough legal red tape to mummify even the most vocal advocate of free speech, SLAPPs are a real slap in the face to those who believe in freedom of the press and holding power to account.
By taking advantage of Britain’s libel laws, billionaire oligarchs, often with a background in organized crime, use our legal system to “launder their reputation” and ensure anyone willing to raise their head above the parapet knows just how costly it will ultimately prove.
Monmouthshire man David Hooper has recently written a book “how oligarchs, corporations and plutocrats use the law to gag their critics,” and has aptly entitled it, “Buying Silence.”
As a former leading media lawyer who has spent a large part of his career defending news outlets from lawsuits, David is well versed in the intricacies and necessity of our libel laws.
However, he has little time for truth-denying oligarchs who bring a gangster mentality to the courtroom and seek to bury the facts under a mound of glittering rubles.
“In my experience Russian billionaires are some of the worst culprits when it comes to SLAPPs,” explained David. who added, “A case I was involved with initiated by an individual called Boris Berezovsky illustrates this perfectly.”
The case in question saw David representing the editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, who was being being sued by Berezovsky after writing a series of investigative articles exposing the man he described as the “Godfather of the Kremlin’s” links to the criminal underworld.
David told the Chronicle, “I went to Moscow to collect evidence for the case and needed to be accompanied by an armed bodyguard because Mr Berezovsky had a dangerous reputation. A lot of people in Moscow knew Berezovsky’s links to organized crime. They’d approach you in the street and happily tell you about some of the more unsavory stories about him but when asked if they’d testify in court they’d simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I don’t want to be thrown out of a window!’”
David explained, “The point being, we have this ludicrous situation where characters like Berezovsky are allowed to sue and bring these actions against media outlets who are simply reporting the truth.”
David’s client, Paul Klebnikov was later shot nine times by an unknown assassin. In the wake of the 41-year-old’s death Berezovsky publicly dismissed him as “a dishonest reporter.” Berezovsky was later found hanged, and another individual involved in the case was blown up by a car bomb. All scenarios you’d associate more with ‘The Godfather’ than a day in the life of a libel lawyer.
David has also been on the receiving end of attempts to silence and discredit him. In 2020 he discovered that alongside 1,000 attorneys at over 100 law firms globally he had been hacked by Indian cyber firm BellTroX.
David explained, “I received a phone call from a reporter for Thomson Reuters informing me that mine was the most hacked name in an investigation they were conducting.”
The hackers-for-hire at BellTrox had also been paid to discredit journalists at The Financial Times who were investigating the multibillion-dollar fraud at Wisecard. However, the fact they were paying close attention to a lawyer in Pantygelli, made David realise no-one or nowhere was out of bounds or off limits for a SLAPP.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of a SLAPP so I know how intimidating and stressful they can be,” explained David.
“There was one involving Mohamed Al-Fayed, but the most memorable example was when I gave evidence in court for a Greek newspaper. Two months later I received a writ stating that I had libeled this Israeli multi-millionaire and I was guilty of perjury.”
David said, “It was complete nonsense because you cannot sue people for giving evidence in court. However, the trouble is with Greece everything is done in Greek,” he laughed, “So that made it a little more complicated.”
David added, “Although it didn’t worry me, such actions can be very intimidating, particularly to those with no experience of the law. Libel is difficult to defend and can be very detrimental to your finances. When an official document arrives explaining how much your being sued for and by who, it’s always tempting to throw in the towel no matter the truth of the matter, and that is wrong.”
Although high-profile personalities such as Tory donor Mohamed Amersi and former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi have seemingly tarnished their reputations even more in the pursuit of libel claims, David is quick to point out that these cases are just the tip of an iceberg. It’s the stories that get silenced by the lawyer’s first letter and the cases that never make it to court we should be concerned with.
He told the Chronicle, “The most damaging aspect of SLAPPs is they serve as a chilling warning to everyone else what could happen if you dare to speak out or report on certain individuals and corporations. They have a very corrosive effect on freedom of speech because the odds seem so stacked in favour of the wealthy.”
In the world of SLAPPs everyone involved is paying for high stakes, and David believes the vast amounts of money involved is having a corrupting influence on lawyers.
“Libel laws are essential to our society. Everyone should have the right to protect their reputation from falsehoods, but we now have a situation where the pubic’s right to be informed is being denied. Libel shouldn’t just be a plaything for the rich. Huge amounts of money are being thrown at lawyers to get them to silence anyone their clients want silencing,” said David.
He explained that these lawyers are not particularly interested in the legitimacy or honesty of their client’s claims, they’ve simply got their beady eyes firmly fixed on the pay-off. A state of affairs which has seen leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson to describe the UK as, “not the land of free speech. It is the land of expensive speech.”
Although there is often a vague consensus amongst the public that the press writes what it wants about who it wants, the perpetual threat of libel cases, and the rise of data protection claims has seen more and more newspapers wary of publishing anything that could possibly land them in a drawn-out and expensive legal battle. Particularly when shrinking newspaper budgets are no match for the vast wealth certain individuals and corporations have at their disposal.
It’s a bad situation and seemingly getting worse.
“Money is the problem, and when you’re dealing with individuals who have generated incredible amounts of wealth from illegal activities and that they don’t pay tax on, they can easily afford to pay millions to silence anyone they want silencing,” explained David.
However, despite more and more lawyers becoming enticed by lucrative paydays, and characters like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late leader of the Wagner Group, being able to stand straight-faced before a British court in 2021 and complain he had grievously wounded by a writer’s tweet, David is optimistic that change can happen
“The new Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act doesn’t go far enough with its anti-SLAPP provisions,” explained David. “We need a more robust and radical anti-SLAPP law, and Judges should decide if there is a public interest in any libel case before allowing them. Solicitors should also run approbate and money laundering checks on libel claimants before taking them on. They should also establish the factual truth of what their client tells them and verify why their client beeves a certain article or allegation is untrue or will cause serious damage to their reputation. Additionally cases should be less expensive and legal costs transparent.”
David added, “Not everyone is entitled to their day in court and law firms need to acknowledge this, but change will not just assist defendants facing claims from SLAPPsters but will also give greater access to justice to claimants who are, at present, excluded from action by the cost of bringing a libel claim.”
After years spent in the Machiavellian and cloak and daggers world of SLAPPs, multi-million lawsuits, and global hacking, David is happily retired in his leafy corner of sleepy Monmouthshire. “To date I’ve seen no Russian oligarchs hiding in my rose bushes,” he joked. Reflecting upon his career he fondly remembers a conference call from his Pantygelli home with three FBI Special Agents and two members from America’s Department of Justice.
“We were discussing the hacking operation that had targeted me,” recalls David. “And the thing is when you’re talking to the FBI on Zoom they can see you but you’re not allowed to see them. Yet before the call ended I couldn’t resist asking them, ‘Is this your first ever call to Pantygelli?’ You can guess their response, but you know, it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.”
David Hooper will be in conversation with journalist Matthew Engel at St Teilo’s Church, Lantilio Pertholey on February 28. The doors open at 6.30pm and tickets are available from church wardens or www.ticketsource.co.uk.
‘Buying Silence’ By David Hooper is The Spectator’s Book of the Year 2023 and is available now from all available outlets.