Threat to bookshops over book about ‘playboy banker’
London-based libel lawyers representing a playboy financier have sent threatening letters to bookshops around the world in an attempt to block distribution of a book detailing his alleged involvement in one of the biggest financial scandals in history.
Free speech campaigners said the decision to threaten a book’s distributors rather than the publisher or author could be seen as an attempt to “short-circuit the legal process” and risks setting a precedent that would intimidate booksellers.
The book – Billion Dollar Whale by the Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Tom Wright – describes how the Malaysian financier Jho Low is accused by the US government of masterminding the theft of billions of dollars from the Malaysian stateowned investment fund 1MDB, which was sent to bank accounts in Switzerland, Singapore and the Virgin Islands. It has been widely reported that Low, 36, is facing money-laundering charges in absentia in Malaysia and is the subject of an Interpol red notice.
Low insists he has not broken any laws, is not guilty of any fraud and is not being investigated. His lawyers say that the allegations in the book are defamatory and wholly untrue.
Billion Dollar Whale has received positive reviews in the US, where it is released next week. It alleges that Low gained the trust of the prime minister of Malaysia by befriending his son, evaded major Wall Street banks to siphon off funds from the investment organisation and used the money to live a life of partying with celebrities and buy expensive property. Low has always maintained that his wealth was family inheritance.
Low, who was educated in Britain at Harrow school, later helped to finance the film The Wolf of Wall Street and was personally thanked by Leonardo DiCaprio from the stage of the 2011 Golden Globe Awards.
However, Billion Dollar Whale has been in effect blocked from distribution in Britain after a sustained legal campaign by Low’s London-based law firm Schillings. Although Low has not apparently commenced legal action against the book’s publisher Hachette, or its authors, the Guardian has seen letters on Schillings-headed paper that have been sent to independent bookstores in Britain and around the world.
Those sent to bookstores say the decision by some to publish a synopsis of the book constituted an actionable libel of Low. Schillings wrote to one bookseller to say it was “astonishing” that the shop had published a description of Billion Dollar Whale on its website, and said the bookseller was “now on notice that serious defamatory material is likely to be contained in the subject book”.
“It is troubling to us to hear reports of booksellers being threatened or attempts to keep the public from reading a book,” said a spokesperson for the book’s US publishers Hachette.
The authors said Low and his law firm did not cooperate with the book and instead were “threatening small bookshops and distributors, which is an affront to freedom of speech”.
In Britain, parliament took steps through section 10 of the Defamation Act 2013 to put a stop to the targeting of booksellers unless it was not reasonably practicable to take action against the author or publisher. Schillings have focused on the publication of synopses by booksellers to apply pressure on distribution of the book.
Not all of the legal warnings have been from Schillings. Jon Page, of Sydney-based bookseller Boomerang Books, said he had received two emails and a postal letter from a local Australian law firm, which used similar language to the Schillings letters.
“My feeling is the lawyer is blowing smoke to get booksellers to withdraw the book even though they don’t have to. We won’t be withdrawing the book,” he said.
No British publisher would agree to publish the book owing to UK libel law, according to a source with knowledge of the legal issues surrounding its publication. As a result of this decision and the legal campaign it is almost impossible to obtain a copy in Britain.
After contacting Low for comment, the Guardian received a response from Schillings, who said: “We do not talk about clients or matters, neither do we confirm or deny whether any individual or entity is a client of the firm.”
▲ The Malaysian financier Jho Low, subject of the book facing legal action