Critical path: how did a book reviewer and an author end up in court?

Richard J. Evans weighs a High Court judgment that awarded an academic £65,000 in damages for negative coverage of her work

August 4, 2011

Credit: Rose Barton

The High Court in London has delivered a libel judgment that could have a significant impact on the freedom of book reviewers to write what they like. The judgment was in a case brought by the sociologist Sarah Thornton. In her book Seven Days in the Art World, published by Granta in 2008, Thornton presented a fly-on-the-wall account of different aspects of the art business, based on extensive interviews with those involved. In one chapter she dealt with the prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art, awarded in 2006 to the painter Tomma Abts. One member of the jury that year was the journalist Lynn Barber, who reviewed the book in the Daily Telegraph on 1 November 2008.

The review described the author as "a decorative Canadian" with "a seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense". Thornton had claimed to have interviewed Barber for the book, but Barber said she had not. Moreover, said Barber, the book's text had been vetted and altered by the interviewees, thus questioning Thornton's claim to have written an independent, critical account. Thornton complained, but on failing to obtain adequate redress, she went to court. On 26 July, Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled in her favour and awarded her £65,000 in damages.

The Telegraph declared that it would appeal "at the earliest opportunity". It warned that the judgment had "adverse implications for freedom of expression". Other newspapers expressed alarm. "Has Lynn Barber killed the art of criticism?" asked The Independent, with the standfirst: "Telegraph's £65,000 payout for 'spiteful' article threatens to muzzle reviewers."

Should book reviewers be worried? Can we expect the robust reviewing culture of British journals and newspapers to be replaced by bland platitudes forced on reviewers by anxious editors and worried in-house lawyers?

As so often in such cases, the issues are more complicated than they might seem. To begin with, there was a back-history to the review, for Thornton's book included criticisms of Barber's conduct as a Turner Prize judge. So Barber's motives, the court found, included personal malice towards Thornton. Hence the "spiteful" nature of the review.

Does the judgment mean that reviewers can no longer be spiteful, then? The answer is a qualified "no". "A reviewer", ruled the judge, "is entitled to be spiteful, so long as she is honest."

In this case, he found that Barber was not. She had not only been interviewed by Thornton during the preparation of the book, but she knew the interview had taken place. And she knew perfectly well that Thornton, while giving interviewees the opportunity to comment on what she had written about them, had not given them "copy approval" of the text.

Barber's claim that Thornton had given "copy approval", the court found, was clearly intended to damage the reputation of both Thornton and her book. This was a matter of concern to the author not least because the book has otherwise been a critical and commercial success, with good sales and translations into 14 foreign languages at the last count. Ninety-nine per cent of academic books won't fall into this category. Still, does the judgment mean that reviewers and review editors will have to change their way of going about their business?

There are three broader issues here that need thinking about. First, should more care be taken to ensure that reviewers have no connection with the author whose work they're discussing?

A former literary editor has rightly noted that "as a commissioner of reviews, you're aware that often a person with specialist, insider knowledge will also precisely be a person with an axe to grind". In practice, the reviewing business would come to a stop if, say, reviewers were debarred from writing about books whose authors had previously reviewed their own work.

But second, this puts a greater onus on reviewers to make sure they get their facts right, especially if they are writing a critical or, still more, a hostile review. Reviews are often written under the pressure of tight deadlines, but in the end this does not excuse errors and misstatements. Review editors need to check facts too. Strong language is still fine if you get your facts right.

Finally, newspapers and periodicals must be more generous in their policy than they currently are towards authors who want to reply to criticism of their work. In the end, thrashing out the issues in print is surely a better way of settling them than going to court.

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