Historian and Wife Apologize, Pay Two Authors Defamed in Online "Poison Pen" Reviews

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Historian Orlando Figes must pay damages and apologize after threatening to sue anyone accusing him of writing damning reviews on Amazon.com. He later admitted to writing them.(Credit: Flickr, Bocko M.)

Professor Orlando Figes, the high-profile London historian who earlier this year fessed up to writing defamatory anonymous reviews of competitors’ work on Amazon.com, is now paying those competitors a legal settlement. Figes specializes in Russian history.

The New York Times reported July 19  that Figes and his wife will be paying “unspecified damages and legal costs” to authors Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service.

The Independent wrote July 17 that part of the settlement required Figes to also send out “an apology and retraction in which he accepts that his denial of responsibility for the reviews was false.”

Figes and his wife Stephanie Palmer agreed to not write any more reviews of Polonsky’s or Service’s works online, the Guardian reported.

The UK Press Association wrote July 16 that Figes has been on sick leave from Birkbeck, University of London, since his outing as the anonymous reviewer who defamed the two competitors.

Figes also promised not to “repeat the allegations,” “not to post pseudonymous reviews of their works, and not to use fraud, subterfuge or unlawful means to attack or damage them in their professional capacity.”

iMediaEthics wrote about Figes’s admission to writing the anonymous negative reviews, April 30.

Figes had originally taken a bold course and threatened legal action seeking damages against anyone–including his victims– suggesting he had written the reviews. Next round of defense came form his wife, lawyer and senior law lecturer at the University of Cambridge, Stephanie Palmer, who suddenly claimed that she wrote the libelous reviews. Finally, last round, Figes admitted writing them.

Martin Bentham wrote for The Evening Standard newspaper’s website, This is London,  April 27 that Figes’ threats of libel actions were a case in point for why Britain needed libel law reform.

Service, one of the two authors whose work negatively reviewed by Figes, is quoted in This is London as saying he almost paid up to avoid the expense of defending himself. “If someone is wealthy and malicious enough it is possible to tread on the throat” of free speech, Bentham reported.

The Guardian quoted Service April 23 : “I hope everyone can see the urgent need to do something about the laws of libel and to decontaminate the ground of public debate.”

Recent history has shown that Service was justified in fearing the expense of defending himself in a libel lawsuit.

Science writer Simon Singh spent several hundred thousand dollars defending a libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractors Association.  In April, an appeals court ruled in Singh’s favor.

iMediaEthics wrote about the issue of UK libel reform April 2 when Britain’s Secretary of State Jack Straw started pushing for a reform of Britain’s libel law.  Britain has been viewed by many as a “libel tourism” destination as it is easier for the public to win cases against the media than in the USA.

While it may be easier in Britain to pursue libel claims case against the press, the legal costs are still very high, and unlike in America, if the media wins, the loser must pay their own and the media’s legal costs. In the end, extreme litigation expenses act as a deterent to most people, institutions or companies who have been, or think they have been, defamed, even in the UK.

Press Gazette wrote July 29 that the U.S. SPEECH Act, which StinkyJournalism wrote about June 24, should be signed into law within the next 30 days. The act would make any overseas libel rulings void if U.S. law wouldn’t uphold the ruling.  While the act doesn’t stop libel rulings overseas, it does prevent money from being collected from the ruling.

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Historian and Wife Apologize, Pay Two Authors Defamed in Online “Poison Pen” Reviews

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