Who knew what a delicate flower Yevgeny Prigozhin was? Yes, that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late leader of the Wagner Group, the sociopath who liked watching videos of people killing other people with sledgehammers when he wasn’t busy slaughtering Ukrainians or marching on the Kremlin.
Yet, there he was, in August of 2021, coming before an English court to complain that he had been grievously wounded by a writer’s tweet—a tweet that ruined his reputation, he said, by alleging he was connected to … the Wagner Group. As David Hooper recounts in his new book, Buying Silence, Prigozhin’s English lawyers assured the court that their client was no mercenary, but a businessman with “interests in the restaurant and food service industry.”
Later, Prigozhin would issue a press release celebrating his founding of the Wagner Group in 2014, and his English lawyers would once again find themselves before the court—in a closed session—asking for permission to withdraw. As for Prigozhin, “he was left whinging that he could not find a lawyer in England willing to take on his case.”
A reading of Buying Silence would suggest that Prigozhin was very much alone in that regard among the world’s oligarchs, plutocrats, and all-purpose international rogues, none of whom seemed to have any problem finding English lawyers eager to collect a fee from the dirtiest of hands to bring claims of defamation in London.
In August of 2021, Yevgeny Prigozhin came before an English court to complain that he had been grievously wounded by a writer’s tweet—a tweet that ruined his reputation, he said, by alleging he was connected to … the Wagner Group.
Hooper knows this legal landscape well. He is an English solicitor who spent more than 40 years defending publishers against defamation claims brought by the Progozhins of the world—the ultra-wealthy and disreputable who were willing to spend whatever it took to lodge punishing and costly libel actions against those who dared to call them out on their bad behavior.
The English legal system described by Hooper is a Donald Trump fantasia—a place where the rich are allowed to launder their dirty reputations and treasure-hunt in courts that are much too willing to disregard the truth and obsess over legal technicalities to keep questionable, and sometimes fraudulent, defamation claims alive.
Hooper’s book is an important compendium of the most abusive and notorious of those libel cases, with a deep dive into the shady pasts and misdeeds of those claiming to be defamed. A pattern quickly emerges in these pages. A compromised gazillionaire sues over minor inaccuracies in a damning story. Costly and highly publicized litigation ensues. The courts dither a bit and then decline to toss the case, and with legal bills mounting, the publishers end up posting some minor clarification or correction—only to learn later that the article was indisputably true.
The English legal system described by David Hooper is a Donald Trump fantasia—a place where the rich are allowed to launder their dirty reputations and treasure-hunt in courts.
As much as Hooper’s book is about the abusive tactics of the claimants, he has a special scorn for the fee-hungry lawyers and overly solicitous judges who become enablers of this cynical scheme. Their co-conspirators are a bevy of P.R. flacks and crisis communication consultants. Defamation claims were meant to repair the good name of worthy people sullied by inaccurate reporting. What Hooper sees is an industry devoted to exploiting the weaknesses of English libel law to silence critics and journalists. It is message litigation intended to put the next publisher and next journalist on notice: Don’t go there.
As befits an English lawyer, Hooper is more given to circumspection and sardonic asides than to outrage, despite the heaping mounds of outrageous behavior catalogued in Buying Silence. On occasion, though, he opens the curtain a little on the zaniness of litigating libel suits. His e-mail is hacked while he is defending a Greek publisher, providing him with an opportunity to explore, with three F.B.I. agents, “why hackers thought it worthwhile to send so many pornographic phishing emails to English lawyers and Greek politicians.”
In one of his best chapters, he recounts his successful defense of Vanity Fair against a libel claim brought by the owner of Harrods department store, Mohamed Al-Fayed. The head of Al-Fayed’s security team shows up at Hooper’s office with a dubious promise of critical evidence and offers to strip down to his underwear to prove he is not wired. “Despite my suspicions, I discouraged that, as I had no wish to see him in his underpants,” Hooper writes. (Yes, the guy was wired.) “So fearful was Al-Fayed that the settlement discussions might be recorded that they had to take place in the steam room of a London club.”
Hooper is no blind zealot. He acknowledges that there are legitimate libel suits. But his book is an extended plea for a re-balancing of English law to give more protection to free speech and create more barriers to so-called SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation).
It won’t be easy. Hooper recounts how one of Prigozhin’s barristers appeared before a parliamentary committee and testified that “abusive defamation cases were highly unlikely because they essentially required a claimant to base their case on a lie.” Claimants who lie—well, the barrister allowed, that was “vanishingly rare.”
Buying Silence leaves little doubt that the barrister was—let me think of a non-libelous way to say this—perhaps mistaken.
David E. McCraw is the senior vice president and deputy general counsel at the New York Times Company