Sir: Niall Ferguson (‘On being called a racist’, 17/24 December) says that ‘the freedom of the press does not extend to defamation’. This is an odd idea, but one which Ferguson shares with the governments of those countries in which journalists are routinely imprisoned for insulting the powerful. In England, defamation is a civil offence and claims of libel must be won through reasoned argument, not simply asserted.
He claims that, in the London Review of Books review of Civilisation, Pankaj Mishra accuses him of racism. He says that ‘expressions of racism are now defined as criminal acts in Britain’. They are not. Inciting or stirring up racial hatred is an offence but Mishra does not accuse Ferguson of inciting racial hatred, or even of expressing racism. He draws an analogy between Ferguson’s work and the racist theories of Theodore Stoddard. This may be distressing to Ferguson but it appears to represent an honestly held opinion, based on Mishra’s very different understanding of imperial history. The Court of Appeal ruled last year in the Simon Singh case that to ask judges to determine such academic arguments is ‘to invite the Court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth’. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s legal threats exert a deliberately chilling effect on his critics, who may not choose to risk high legal costs to defend themselves.
The rule of law is one of those ‘killer apps’ which Ferguson admires so much when they are exported. He seems to understand little, and care less, about its application in this country.
Director, English PEN
The old ones are the best
Sir: The ‘best joke of the year’ supplied by Dr Jonathan Sacks to Andrew Marr (Diary, 17/24 December) is of much older vintage than apparently suggested by the Chief Rabbi.