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A lesson of history about libel

The legal threat of Niall Ferguson.

The legal threat of Niall Ferguson over a hostile review in the London Review of Books by Pankaj Mishra of his Civilisation: The West and the Rest is, at best, unfortunate.

As with the case of British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh, one suspects that this is the sort of dispute not well suited to a libel court. Whether Mishra's (frankly rather unreadable) review actually made the "insinuations" that Ferguson asserts, does not, in my view, lend itself easily to the libel litigation process. By the time Ferguson's meaning of the "words complained of" is determined, and all the applicable defences worked out, one or two years will have passed and hundreds of thousands of pounds will have been spent. And the case would still probably be no nearer trial.

A better way would be, as Ferguson has indeed done, to set out why Mishra's insinuations are incorrect. If Mishra was wrong-headed in, for example, comparing Ferguson's approach with that of a little-known vile American historian, then Ferguson's rebuttal will be all that is really needed. There appears to be no good reason for Ferguson to press on for an "apology" backed with the threat of expensive libel litigation. An apology in such circumstances would not have any real-world effect of vindication. In fact, it may well be said that Ferguson -- paradoxically -- will have damaged his reputation more with a threat of a libel action than any book review by Mishra would ever do.

One would instead urge the approach of historians of previous generations. For example, in the early 1960s, Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor got into a vicious spat over the latter's Origins of the Second World War. Trevor-Roper, a professor at Oxford University, wrote an extremely aggressive review of his colleague's book, ending with the comment:

It [the book] will do harm, perhaps irreparable harm, to Mr Taylor's reputation as a serious historian.

But Taylor replied, tearing apart the Trevor-Roper review in an article "HOW TO QUOTE: Exercises for Beginners" which, in turn, ended:

The Regius professor's methods of quotation might also do serious harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one.

(Source: Ved Mehta's wonderful contemporaneous account of many early 1960s intellectual disputes in England, The Fly and the Fly-Bottle)

Taylor and Trevor-Roper (and Toynbee, Elton, Thompson, and all the great historians) dealt with controversy by simply rolling up the sleeves of their tweed jackets and getting stuck into the next round of acrimony and recrimination. That, surely, is a better way than a claim in defamation.

This is not to say that Ferguson does not have a libel case. He may well do so. But all because one has a legal right, one does not necessarily have to exercise it. If anything, that is a lesson of libel history that even a historian can appreciate.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

Tags:Libel