Influential author and broadcaster Hubert Seipel received financial support for his work on two books described by many as sympathetic to Russian president.
Aleading western journalist who has long been considered one of Germany’s top independent experts on Russia received at least €600,000 (£522,000) in undisclosed offshore payments from companies linked to an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, leaked files have revealed.
Hubert Seipel, an award-winning film-maker and author, was paid money in instalments, which documents suggest was to support his work on two books he wrote that chart Putin’s rise to power and offer portrayals described by many as sympathetic to the Russian president.
The case is one of the first linking an influential western journalist with significant payments in what could be seen by some as attempts by pro-Putin actors to secure positive coverage in the international med
The revelations are likely to reverberate across Germany, where debate has been raging since last year’s invasion of Ukraine over the role parts of the political and business elite played in helping to keep Putin in power, not least due to its long-term dependence of Europe’s largest economy on Russian oil and gas.
One of the few journalists anywhere to have had direct and regular contact with the Russian leader, Seipel, who by his own admission has met Putin “nearly 100 times”, has acknowledged receiving money from accounts linked to the oligarch Alexei Mordashov, a steel and banking magnate placed under sanctions last year for his close ties to the Kremlin.
He did not confirm the sums he received, though the documents contain details of payments totalling €600,000 which appear to be connected to the second book.
Seipel confirmed he had received support from Mordashov, saying “his support relates exclusively to the book projects”. He stressed he had remained impartial, saying: “I always set clear legal boundaries that guaranteed my independence.”
The documents, and Seipel’s response, suggest the payments were for his work on a 2015 biography called Putin: Inner Views of Power and a 2021 title, Putin’s Power: Why Europe Needs Russia, both originally written in German.
Seipel does not appear to have disclosed the payments to his publisher.
In its response to the Guardian, Hoffmann und Campe said it had not known about the payments.
“The publisher has had no previous knowledge of the allegations you have made against Hubert Seipel regarding ‘sponsorship income’. Should these prove to be true, we reserve the right to take further action in connection to the books which were contracted, in 2013 and 2016 respectively, by the management at the time based on an TV-documentary,” a spokesperson said.
She added the publisher had not had plans prior to the payments being brought to its attention for future publications with Seipel.
The information has emerged from the Cyprus Confidential project – a cache of 3.6m offshore records leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Germany’s Paper Trail Media, which shared access with the Guardian and other reporting partners.
The EU described Mordashov in its sanctions press release and notice as one of “Putin’s elite” who was “benefiting from his links with Russian decision-makers”. He has owned a stake in Rossiya Bank, described as the lender to Russia’s elite, and was the largest shareholder in Tui, Europe’s biggest tour operator – an investment currently frozen under sanctions measures.
Mordashov was one of the select group of business leaders who gathered at the Kremlin on 24 February 2022, hours after the invasion of Ukraine.
He declined to comment on any payments to Seipel. In response to questions about the sanctions placed on him, his spokesperson said: “Everything [Mordashov] has built and achieved was accomplished through fair business practices and strict compliance with regulations.”
The Cyprus files include an agreement titled “Deed of Sponsorship”, signed in March 2018 by Seipel and by a director of a British Virgin Islands (BVI)-registered company called De Vere Worldwide Corp, and a further witness.
Documents from this time period list the ultimate owner of De Vere as a high-ranking manager in Mordashov’s Severstal group.
The payment of €600,000 is described as sponsorship for a book Seipel already seems to have been planning to write, and for which he already had a publishing contract. In the deed of sponsorship it is stipulated he is “writing book (sic) on political environment in the Russian Federation”, which was expected to be published in 2019.
The project’s sponsor, according to the deed, committed to “support the development of this project” and “make this political and historical development available to a wider audience”. Seipel was also to receive “logistical and organisational support” during his research in Russia, and was under no obligation to pay the money back in case the book was never actually published.
The deed also stated he was free to work independently: “The author shall have no obligation to the sponsor in relation to the project (whether with respect to the content or the composition of the book or otherwise) or its completion.”
Other documents suggest Seipel was paid in two instalments, with the second taking place in the first half of 2019, from an account at the private Russian Sovcombank.
The payments appear to have taken circuitous routes through offshore structures owned by Mordashov and his associates, and managed by corporate service providers in Cyprus.
A handwritten note in the deed of sponsorship of 2018 reads: “Similar deed signed by Cavern 08/2013: Putin biography”. Cavern is likely to be a BVI-registered company called Cavern Ventures Ltd, which appears to be connected to Severstal.
In a lengthy response to the Guardian, Seipel acknowledged he had received money from Mordashov. He said he wanted it to be known “his [Mordashov’s] support relates exclusively to the book projects,” and that he had “at no point received money for films and television interviews from third parties”.
He condemned what he said were attempts to frame him as “a special kind of journalistic secret agent” with a pro-Kremlin, anti-US stance. He said over a lengthy career he had always “described the world as it is, not as it should be”. No evidence of suspicion of bias had ever been found in his work by those who awarded him Germany’s top media prizes, he said.
Seipel said his books were the result of eight years of extensive travel and research, and had “led to lively discussions and ideological battles”. He said no factual errors were found “in any” of them.
On publication the books were welcomed by some critics who praised Seipel for his fresh approach to Putin. But they were ridiculed by others. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called him “Putin’s mate”, after the positive reception in 2016 of the Russian-language version of his book Putin: Inner Views of Power in Moscow, attended by Putin himself, while the Süddeutsche Zeitung said Seipel had effectively “made himself Putin’s legal representative – namely by excluding the facts”.
For Seipel’s documentary Ich Putin – Ein Porträt (I Putin – a Portrait), he was given exclusive access to the president, following him across Russia. It shows Putin hunting red deer in Siberia and driving through Moscow in a limousine, accompanied by Seipel, as well as being ear-licked poolside by his dog after a swim, and playing in an ice hockey match.
The documentary was viewed by 1.85 million people when it was first aired in 2012, a market share of 10.9% and was subsequently repeated 51 times, according to the broadcaster NDR.
Seipel, who secured the first television interview with the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden after his arrival in Moscow in 2014, has faced accusations of being too pro-Russia. In a 2021 German radio broadcast, he denied receiving money from Russia in return for favourable reporting. When asked by the presenter whether he had taken payments, he responded: “Have you lost the plot? No!”.
NDR said it had no knowledge of the sponsorship deal and that it took the allegations “very seriously”. It said it had blocked access to his films until further notice.
It added: “Mr Seipel should have informed (NDR) about a possible conflict of interest, such as a payment.”/The Guardian/