Niall Ferguson threatens to sue Mishra

Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by he Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.
Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by the Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.

Oh dear.

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.

But yesterday we hear that Ferguson is threatening legal action, which rather undermines my point about the classiness of ‘counter-speech’ over legal threats.

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.

A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.

First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.

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.