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.)

Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood