Reviews are a key part of the academic world as researchers, journalists, and others assess and judge the work of others. Within this world, a British court recently sided with a sociologist who had sued a reviewer:
A High Court judged ruled that Lynn Barber’s 2008 review of Seven Days in the Art World by Dr Sarah Thornton, a noted sociologist, was “spiteful” and contained serious factual errors. The Telegraph Group, owner of The Daily Telegraph, which published the article, has been ordered to pay Dr Thornton £65,000 in damages.
While the country’s critics regard such factual errors as justifiably punishable, the case still raises questions for scribes who have grown accustomed to saying what they like about whomever they please…
There is a long history of critical clashes. The most high profile are necessarily those that end up in court. In 1998 the journalist and TV presenter Matthew Wright “reviewed” the play The Dead Monkey starring David Soul, calling it “without doubt the worst West End show”. The chink in his armour was that he’d never actually seen it, and Soul won £30,000 in a libel case.
Sometimes, the clashes are less clear cut. One anonymous arts critic told The Independent about three legal threats that had recently landed across his desk, none of which ended up in court, incidents he described as “shots across the bows”. To avoid such clashes, critics may find it necessary to limit how often they tackle certain subjects. “My view is that a critic has to be honest and say what he or she likes,” said Brian Sewell, art critic at the London Evening Standard.
The story suggests there two components to the lawsuit: “spiteful” comments and factual inaccuracies. I imagine the case was decided in the sociologist’s favor mainly due to the factual errors in the review (which didn’t have to do with the book but about what the reviewer said about an interview with the author) rather than the critical comments which are common in reviews.
The case reminds of how I heard one academic describe reviews: they are opportunities to knock down other researchers and if you are gracious or perhaps even neutral in a review, it can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Reading some reviewers (academic or journalistic), it is sometimes hard to imagine they would be happy with anything.