who for the past few years has been working on a book about the origins of modern Russian corruption, focussing particularly on the links between the ex-KGB, business and organised crime in St Petersburg in the early 1990s. I’ve read the manuscript (provisionally sub-titled: "How, why and when did Putin decide to build a Kleptocratic and Authoritarian Regime in Russia and what is its Future?" Without giving away the specific sizzling scoops it contains, I can say I found it admirable: lucid, incisive and devastating. In the light of the news from Ukraine, and the resulting sanctions recently imposed on some of what America now officially calls Vladimir Putin's "cronies" (details here), it could hardly be more timely and important.
But Mrs Dawisha’s publisher has got cold feet. She has just received this letter (posted in full below) from Cambridge University Press, saying that the legal risk of publishing the book is too great:
given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin’s power is founded on his links to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort.
Mrs Dawisha is understandably furious. She has had many previous books published with CUP and was not expecting any difficulty. She notes:
at the very time that the US and EU governments, obviously fully in possession of intelligence that points to precisely this conclusion, puts members of this group [Putin’s associates] on a visa ban and asset freeze list, one of the world’s most important and reputable publishers declines to proceed with a book not because of its scholarly quality …but because the subject matter itself is too hot to handle.
Mrs Dawisha’s full response to CUP is below. She stresses that she is not angry with CUP, but with the climate in Britain which allows what she calls “pre-emptive bookburning”. For its part, the publisher says that it had has not failed to honour an obligation to publish the book as it had not passed the proposal stage (a letter from CUP to the Economist is appended below).
From John Haslam, Executive Publisher, Political Science and Sociology, Cambridge University Press March 20th 2014:
Many apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I know that you understand that this is a difficult question and I appreciate your great patience while we worked through the issues involved.After discussion with legal colleagues who have reviewed the typescript from both a US and UK legal perspective, I’m afraid that our view is that we are not in a position to proceed with your book. The decision has nothing to do with the quality of your research or your scholarly credibility. It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources.
A defamatory statement—in this case, a potential libel—is a false statement that undermines the reputation of the person about whom the statement is made. In a court of law, the fact-finder cannot just accept the writer or publisher’s assertion that a statement is true. In England in particular, a libel claimant can require the writer and publisher to prove truth, which in the case of your book, would be extremely difficult to do for many of the claims you make. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, but we believe the risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the book—that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle—would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so. Even if the Press was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.
President Putin has never been convicted for the crimes or activities which are outlined in the book, and we cannot be sure that any of the other named individuals or organisations have either. That the allegations may have been published elsewhere is no defence; re-publication of a libellous statement is still libel if it cannot be proven to be true.
We did consider asking an expert outside lawyer to thoroughly review the manuscript and provide detailed suggestions about how it could be rewritten. However, this would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin's power is founded on his links to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort. Under American defamation jurisprudence, it is likely that the book would benefit dramatically from the "public figure" defence, which requires a claimant not only to prove that statements are provably false, but that they were made maliciously (as opposed to negligently had the claimant been a private citizen). But it is not US litigation that gives us pause. As you know, claimants (Russians among them) tend to look to English courts to bring defamation claims as they are very friendly to claimants. Even with the recent modernisation of the libel laws in England, the fact the book would be published by an English company would arguably give a claimant the necessary nexus to England required to give the courts jurisdiction. As mentioned above, once in an English court, it is the defendant that has to prove its defence that the statements are true. While it would also now be possible to show that the book was published in the public interest and reflects your honestly-held opinion, these defences are new and untested. Given the nature of some of the allegations in the book, including allegations made about named individuals associated with Putin who could more easily show damage to reputation (some examples are attached), publication would, in our view, be a significant risk. We need also take into account the extremely onerous defamation laws in Russia itself, which criminalise what would ordinarily be a civil matter in England and the US. Again, we would feel obliged to take advice about criminal liability under Russian law, which would be very expensive and time-consuming.
This is a very difficult situation, and our decision is not one which we reach lightly. We might wish that the libel laws were different, but they are the context in which we operate.I am very sorry not to reply more positively, and that this discussion has taken so long. I wish you every success with your work.All best wishes
Mrs Dawisha's reply (April 2, 2014):
Thank you for the recent letter setting out CUP’s ultimate decision not to proceed with my book on the origins of Putin’s corrupt system. I appreciated your statement that “the decision has nothing to do with the quality of your research or your scholarly credibility. It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources.” I also accept your advice that the manuscript would likely not face the same kind of challenge in the U.S. where, as your letter puts it, “the book would benefit dramatically from the ‘public figure’ defence.”
Of course, as we have talked about previously, I will pursue American publishing options. But I hope you will at the same time entertain some of my own further thoughts on the matter.
It seems to me that CUP’s attachment as an addendum of several sentences that were potentially libelous represented a meager effort when compared with the many months that the Press’ legal department was reviewing the manuscript. I understand the ultimate reasoning that the basic premise of the book was such that the Press decided that no matter how many legally acceptable qualifiers were inserted, the book could not be rewritten in a way to give you “comfort”. That’s a decision that could have been made in November, but let’s assume that many efforts were made to move on the book that ultimately came to naught. But the time lost is not the issue. The real issue is the rather disturbing conclusion that no matter what was done, the book would not have been publishable because of its subject matter.
One is left to conclude that the main lesson to prospective authors is not to publish in the UK anything that might be seen as libelous. Leaving aside the amusing thought that using the standards of ‘comfort’ set out in the letter--deftly written, one assumes, by your legal department--even the King James’ Version should probably also have been published outside the UK, I do think the field of political science and Russian studies (but also Middle East studies as evidenced by CUP’s pulping of Alms for Jihad) needs to come to terms with the difficult situation that no empirical work on corruption (and probably many other topics) should be published with a British publisher.
Last week the EU and the US Government issued a visa ban and asset freeze on the very inner core that is the subject of my book. Many works will now come out on the makeup of the list and why each individual was placed on it. The answers to these questions are in my book. Isn’t it a pity that the UK is a ‘no-fly’ zone for publishing the truth about this group? These Kremlin-connected oligarchs feel free to buy Belgravia, kill dissidents in Piccadilly with Polonium 210, fight each other in the High Court, and hide their children in British boarding schools. And as a result of their growing knowledge about and influence in the UK, even the most significant British institutions (and I think we can agree that CUP, with its royal charter, 500-year history and recent annual revenues in excess of $400m, is a veritable British institution) cower and engage in pre-emptive book-burnings as a result of fear of legal action.
Having said this, I greatly appreciate the many efforts I am sure you personally made to push the project forward. I would never for a moment doubt that you wished it well and worked for its publication. Had the project gone forward, this would have been my eighth book with CUP, and on those grounds alone, I was willing to wait for your lawyers’ decision probably longer than I should have. We can only hope that British libel laws will indeed be “modernized” and thoroughly tested so that authors can once again turn to CUP with the knowledge that it is indeed devoted to publishing “all manner of books” and not just those that won’t awaken the ire of corrupt Russian oligarchs out to make a further mockery of British institutions.
With best regards,
PS I regard this as an open letter and you should feel free to circulate our correspondence as I plan to do.
The statement from a CUP spokesperson reads as follows:
...Professor Dawisha's manuscript, which at her request received a libel read as an initial step in an earlier than usual stage in the publishing process given its controversial nature, has never been past the proposal stage with CUP; it has never been peer-reviewed and we do not have a publication agreement with her. By making this decision at this earlier stage we have afforded her the opportunity to publish with any other publishing house.
Moreover, even though we initially took the view that there would be considerable risks under English law to the Press were we to proceed with publication, you should be aware that earlier today, prior to hearing from you, we contacted Professor Dawisha after reading her response, to see whether we might be able to find a compromise.
Finally, the correspondence between our editor and Professor Dawisha was internal, based on confidential legal advice, and was never meant to be a public statement by the Press on this book or libel law in general. As I am sure you are aware, the process of academic manuscript review, for reasons of academic integrity, is extremely confidential.