Oliver Kamm: Figes' Furies

Historians in the News

[Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist at The Times. He was previously an investment banker and co-founder of an asset management firm.]

This is, to coin a phrase, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented:

'One of Britain’s leading historians has admitted posting poisonous anonymous reviews of his rivals’ work on Amazon’s website, lying to his lawyer and letting his wife take the blame.

'Orlando Figes said that he had “panicked” and was “ashamed” of his behaviour. He has gone on sick leave from his job at Birkbeck College. His confession is the latest twist in a saga marked by a flurry of legal threats that has transfixed academic, literary and media circles.'

Figes's behaviour is darker than mere idiosyncrasy. The heart of it is not the anonymous reviews: it is to have threatened legal action against a newspaper (the TLS) and other historians to prevent them from making statements that he knew to be true....

Libel law exists to protect reputation from damaging statements that are false, not damaging statements that have justification or are otherwise fair comment. I've had minor experience (and it was not terrifying) of the type of person who doesn't observe this distinction, and I thought immediately of examining the history of edits in the entry on Orlando Figes in that great scholarly resource Wikipedia. I make no comment on this, but I point it out.

In 2007, a Wikipedia user called "Orlandofiges" created two sock-puppet accounts, called "DavidPricesolicitors" and "Penguinchristie". David Price is Figes's solicitor. Sarah Christie was publicity manager at Penguin Books, Figes's publisher. "Orlandofiges" edited the entry on Orlando Figes using all of these accounts betweeen 22 and 24 October 2007. The edits have a predictable pattern to them: "Figes's mastery of the big narrative and his literary style have won many prizes and critical acclaim", and so on. The description "a historian of Russia" is amended to "one of the world's leading historians of Russia". The sock puppet "DavidPricesolicitors" weighs in to remove a statement that is "false and defamatory" about the subject....

Read entire article at Times Online (UK)

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