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."

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week