Threat to book­shops over book about ‘play­boy banker’

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Me­dia ed­i­tor Jim Water­son

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

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