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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.