A couple of weeks ago this blog praised the historian Niall Ferguson for keeping his acrimonius war of words with Pankaj Mishra on the letters page of the London Review of Books, and not in the High Court.
I can see how Ferguson would want to pursue this issue to its conclusion. I imagine there are few things more shocking for a historian and political commentator than to be accused of racism. To demand satisfaction is a natural reaction. However, reading Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s book again, the words written do seem to sit very much within the realm of opinion. It seems to me that a successful defamation claim by Ferguson would set a very worrying precedent for the future.
Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review. His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages). Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist. However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.
This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago. It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper. I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.