Orlando Figes and the anonymous poison pen

What exactly was wrong with a historian publishing caustic anonymous reviews of his competitors’ books on Amazon? Katie Engelhart explores the issues raised by a tragic-comic case.

The case

In April 2010, a mysterious commenter, writing under the nom de plume “Historian”, began publishing caustic reviews of newly released books about Soviet history on the Amazon.co.uk website. “Historian” deemed Professor Rachel Polonsky’s work to be “dense” and “pretentious” and Professor Robert Service’s latest tome to be “rubbish”, “an awful book”. At the same time, the commenter hailed the “beautiful and necessary” work of Birbeck College Professor Orlando Figes. In private emails, circulated amongst prominent specialists in the field (including Figes), a suspicion was aired: that “Historian” was none other than Figes himself. In one of those emails, Service dubbed the reviews “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion”.

And so began the academy-rattling saga. Figes categorically denied the implied allegations against him and accused his rivals of libel. Soon, he instructed his lawyer to threaten legal action against Polonsky, Service and several publications that had published the historians’ conjectures. But no sooner were the legal threats unveiled than Figes’s wife, the barrister Stephanie Palmer, admitted to publishing the reviews herself. An apparently aghast Figes issued a statement indicating that he had “only just found out about this”.

But this explanation too proved short-lived. On 23 April 2010, Figes released a new statement assuming “full responsibility” for the posts and apologising to those he had accused. He later agreed to pay damages to, and cover the legal costs incurred by, Polonsky and Service.

Author opinion

As Polonsky eloquently explained in July 2010, “our cause of action was not the pseudonymous Amazon reviews themselves. Our objectives in pressing this case were to recover the considerable costs we had incurred in fending off Professor Figes’s legal threats...” This is an important distinction. Though his actions were cowardly, petty and unbefitting his distinguished academic title, Orlando Figes had the right to publish reviews of his peers: anonymously or otherwise.

But what of the legal brouhaha that followed? Polonsky and Service both criticised Figes’s hasty resort to legal means: his menacing legal notices and charges of libel. Indeed, Figes’s attempt to turn the law against his rivals appears absurd—but only because he was lying all along.

Our ninth draft principle specifies: “We should be able to counter slurs on our reputations without stifling legitimate debate.” If Figes had been telling the truth—if he was not, in fact, the pseudonymous reviewer—we might be sympathetic to his desperate efforts to protect his professional reputation. It does feel somewhat tragic when academic debate turns litigious. But the right to sue for libel, in appropriate circumstances, must be protected. Figes abused this protection; but this does not, as Service has suggested, mean that the protection is itself unjust.

In fact, Service’s post-debacle commentary is itself troubling. Service has lashed out at the “electronic media that enable the ink to flow from poison pens”. The Guardian reported that, in a private email to peers, Service noted: “Gorbachev banned [anonymity] from being used in the USSR as a way of tearing up someone’s reputation. Now the grubby practice has sprouted up here.”

I hardly think using technological or Gorbachev-style government measures to quash anonymous discussion is appropriate. Service surely understands that anonymous criticism has, in history, had its rightful place.

- Katie Engelhart

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Comments (2)

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    Katie Engelhart’s interesting discussion of the negative anonymous reviews of Rachel Polonsky’s and Robert Service’s works by their colleague Orlando Figes takes a curious turn at the end. Service, she writes, noted that Figes’s attitude reminded him of the Soviet practice of personal attacks. Engelhart, though, shrewdly remarks that Figes had the right to publish anonymous reviews, and she rejects Service’s view with the following argument: “Service surely understands that anonymous criticism has, in history, had its rightful place.” This argument is historically and morally untenable.

    Anonymous criticism certainly had a rightful place in history—as a weapon of the weak. When in times past, graffiti and anonymous pamphlets defied the aberrations of power, they were given credit. This is hardly the case here. Figes was not the weaker party: his works are praised as much as those of Polonsky and Service. Anonymity did not serve to shield him from the vengeance of academic power; rather, it was an instrument to improperly hit his professional rivals. From a historical angle, the argument is misplaced.

    Figes had the right to publish anonymous reviews, but as a citizen, not as a professional or as a scholar. As a professional, that is as a publicist, he had no good reason to remain anonymous. Journalism and anonymity go together only in the one widely recognized case of secrecy regarding a source that gives information in confidence. Figes did not protect such a source, he protected himself. As a scholar, that is as a historian, his position is even weaker. Scholarship and secrecy are each other’s enemies. Scholars have to strive for maximal transparency and accountability. Disclosure is the rule, confidentiality the exception. Peer review, if it wants to be anonymous, needs strong justification. In the Figes affair, no such justification was available, and the anonymity was in violation of scholarly deontology. Engelhart’s argument is correct at the level of citizenship only, but if the duties of professionalism and scholarship are taken into account—and they should, as the affair centers on publication and scholarly rivalry—it founders.

    Ironically, in apologizing and redressing the wrongs caused by his action, Figes seemed to accept the above reasoning more than Engelhart does.

    Antoon De Baets

  2. Did RJ Ellory learn nothing from Figes? Another author caught out for trashing colleagues and glorifying his own work on Amazon – http://goo.gl/gP0we

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