discussions writing & publishing

Newspaper Ordered To Pay Damages For Book Review

As reported in the Guardian, an author has won a court case for a book review that was ‘”spiteful” and contained serious factual errors.

Telegraph Media Group, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, has been ordered to pay £65,000 in damages after losing a high court case for libel and malicious falsehood over a Lynn Barber book review.

Ruling in the high court in London on Tuesday, Mr Justice Tugendhat said a 2008 review of Dr Sarah Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World, by the Telegraph columnist was “spiteful” and contained serious factual errors.

A spokeswoman for the Telegraph Media Group said it was “dismayed” by the judgment and vowed to appeal.

Thornton’s claim for libel and malicious falsehood related to two paragraphs of the review, published by the Telegraph in November 2008.

Now that sets a strange precedent, and it raises interesting questions. Where does someone’s opinion end, and deliberate malicious behaviour begin? If such malice results in lost sales, should the financial costs be recovered? (If so, I hardly think £65,000 equates with those lost sales!)

Of course, I can’t help but imagine some ridiculous future in which those publishers with greater resources possess the powers to threaten those with a bad opinion. You already see this kind of thing with Tory MPs in the UK against those who make ‘untrue inferences ‘ against them. (Then again, authors aren’t as rich as Tory MPs…)

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

7 replies on “Newspaper Ordered To Pay Damages For Book Review”

But it is also true that a reviewer shouldn’t be allowed to lie and purposefully try to trash an authors reputation. Malicious falsehood suggests it was personal, or at least suggests an intent to be harmful. And damages hardly ever directly relate to financial loss, they will include reparation for emotional hurt and also will be punitive so as to deter others (and the offender) from acting like that.

Yes, agree on that, but where does one draw the line? The blogosphere might be full of bad reviews that walk a fine line between a rant and something more malicious. Amazon reviews are another point of concern – that’s at the point of where sales are won or lost…

I suppose you could say there may be future consequences from this, but I also see it for what it is: if you write a review and fill it with falsehoods about the author, then you’re no longer writing a review, but committing libel.

But your question about where opinion begins and reviewing ends is worth considering too. After all, if the review presents the reviewer’s opinion of the author, and it is clear they are opinions, not factual inaccuracies, then it’s hard to justify awarding the case.

This is a tough one. You’re right about the money, though. If that’s for damages to the person’s character, fine, but there’s no way to know how well the book would have sold…

Whilst spite is a very subjective commodity, factual errors are not. I’d be interested to read the judgment (which should be available sooner or later) but I wouldn’t be surprised if the court fell back on the more objective aspects of the case to determine it. Also, I am totally naming a character in my next book “Tugendhat.” Or I may just have a magical maguffin called the Tugend Hat.

Hi Shaun,

Yes, absolutely true. And the more I think about it, the more tricky this sort of thing is for fiction – where it’s almost entirely subjective.

Adrian – I forget you’re a legal man! With your contacts, you could set yourself up representing scarred authors…

Judgement is here.. As I understand it the judge finds that Barber made two factually false claims. 1) That Thornton had not interviewed her. (Thornton had interviewed her, and Barber had, as it turns out, noted the interview in her diary.) 2) That Thornton gave “copy approval” to her interview subjects. (Thornton didn’t). Tugendhat finds that Barber appears to have known that these claims were false when she made them, and that if she didn’t know she was reckless in publishing them. Judge seems particularly unimpressed that Barber lied in her testimony. It all seems pretty sound to me, and doesn’t look much like the thin end of a wedge. (Though I am not a lawyer).

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