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

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.