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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital