Historian pays damages for fake Amazon reviews

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The Independent Culture

Historian and writer Orlando Figes is paying damages and costs to two academics who launched a libel case after a row over fake reviews posted on the Amazon online bookshop website.

The case came after a scandal in which it emerged that award-winning Professor Figes, 50, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, had posted critical reviews of books by a number of authors, including fellow historians Dr Rachel Polonsky and Professor Robert Service, on the Amazon site.

Initially, Prof Figes' wife, Stephanie Palmer, a law lecturer at Cambridge University and barrister at the human rights specialists Blackstone Chambers, shouldered the blame for the reviews.

It then emerged that Prof Figes wrote them himself, using the pseudonyms "Historian" and "Orlando-Birkbeck".

But by then Prof Figes, who has been on sick leave from Birkbeck College since the scandal broke, had issued a string of legal threats to academic colleagues, literary journals and newspapers which suggested he might have written the reviews posted on Amazon.co.uk.

His then lawyer also initially denied that he was the author and threatened legal action.

Dr Polonsky, author of a book on Russian history, and Prof Service, of Oxford University, then launched their legal action.

As part of the settlement agreed today, Prof Figes has circulated an apology and retraction in which he accepts that his denial of responsibility for the reviews was false.

He also withdrew any adverse imputations that an email he sent had conveyed against Dr Polonsky and Prof Service, and apologised for instructing his previous solicitor to write to Prof Service threatening libel proceedings for suggesting that he had written the reviews.

Prof Figes and his wife also agreed to pay Dr Polonsky and Prof Service damages, and their legal costs, partly on the indemnity basis - the highest rate.

He also gave an undertaking 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.

Prof Figes admitted in a statement on April 23 that he had written the bad reviews.

Dr Polonsky's book, Molotov's Magic Lantern, was described as "dense" and "pretentious", with the reviewer adding that it was "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

Prof Service's book, Comrades, was panned as being "awful".

In his April statement Prof Figes apologised for the distress he caused Dr Polonsky and Prof Service, and to his lawyer for having given him incorrect information.