Has Lynn Barber killed the art of criticism?

Telegraph's £65,000 payout for 'spiteful' article threatens to muzzle reviewers

From the US critic John Simon's 1971 proclamation that a naked Diana Rigg resembled "a brick basilica" to AA Gill's 1998 insistence that the Welsh are "pugnacious little trolls", newspaper critics have always trodden a fine line between entertainment and being purposefully offensive (or libellous) to those upon whom they turn their gaze.

On Tuesday, however, their subjects hit back. 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.

"The principle of criticism should be unconstrained," said the philosopher AC Grayling, who describes himself as a "long-time book reviewer".

"You want a vigorous debate: there's a lot of rough and tumble, and sometimes people say things that are upsetting. If it is libellous then obviously the person who has been harmed has a remedy in the legal system. British justice allows a debate over whether the reviewer went too far."

Professor Grayling emphasises that one can write about liking a book without too much justification. "But if you hammer it you have to make a good case over why you dislike it."

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 .

"There is a risk in that, though. There is further risk if you criticise, say, David Hockney in 1990, and in 1995 and in 2000, because he might claim that this is a campaign against him. The idea of a campaign is distasteful to everyone. There are examples of exhibitions I have not reviewed because of the danger it could be misinterpreted as a campaign." Sewell emphasised the oft-repeated journalistic mantra to "publish and be damned" and said that critical freedom "really does depend on who your employer is".

For most, it is business as usual. "I don't see any real repercussions," said the New York Times theatre critic, Ben Brantley. "I have only a cursory knowledge of the case, but the paper wasn't sued because of opinions Barber expressed... but on a matter of fact."

Poisonous pens: 'She makes Megan Fox look like an actress'

Alastair Macaulay on George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker", November 2010

"Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm. They're among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity."

Brian Sewell on Damien Hirst's "No Love Lost, Blue Paintings", October 2009

"In this the words most used and most superfluous are fuck and its derivatives – the fucking chair, fucking debris, fucking rectangle, fucking artist, fucking unbelievable. I take this as licence, for this occasion only, to declare this detestable exhibition fucking dreadful."

Total Film on Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon", June 2011

"Huntington-Whiteley is awful – awful! – as [Shia] LaBeouf's new love interest, sucking the life out of every scene she appears in like some pneumatic Dyson sexbot. Introduced with a leering pan up her Victoria's Secret pins, she achieves the unlikely feat of making Megan Fox look like a proper actress, particularly at moments where she is required to be in peril."

John Simon on "Abelard and Heloise", March 1971

"Robin Phillips' staging is pedestrian when it is not pretentious; Keith Michell is a poised but rather unimpassioned Abelard; Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses and suggests neither intense womanliness nor outstanding intellect."

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