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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The reviewer who tried to kill the book

Author wins court case against hostile reviewer

Sarah Thornton (pictured) has done very well indeed with her book Seven Days in the Art World, which is a series of amusing anecdotes stemming from interviews with icons in the art appreciation world, and is meant to reveal the machinations that go on in the corridors of the British institutions that decide whether an artist is Worthwhile, or not.

What is an artist? she asked, and, What makes a work of art great?

Sarah T. has lots of credibility.  For a start, she writes a regular column on contemporary art for The Economist.  The book in question has become an international hit.  The Sunday Times called it not just "the best book yet about the modern art boom," but extolled it as "excellent, vivid, wittily written."

However, the reviewer for the Daily Telegraph panned it.  This was Lynn Barber, one of the judges for the Turner Prize, and a multi-award-winning journo. Barber claimed (a)  that Sarah Thornton had lied when she said that she had interviewed her (Barber) for the book, and (b) that Sarah Thornton had promised "copy approval" to those she had interviewed.

(a) is patently untrue.  There are legal records that Sarah Thornton interviewed Lynn Barber by telephone for 40 minutes, including Barber's own appointment diary, which notes the interview.  And why, if it had no basis in fact, did Barber go on to claim that Thornton had promised "copy approval"?

"Copy approval" means that the author hands over the relevant chapter, and that the interviewee has the right to censor and alter it to reflect their desires.  An unlikely state of affairs, to say the very least!

Sarah Thornton alleged that Lynn Barber was out to "kill the book," partly because at least three of the other interviewees did not have kind things to say about the Turner Prize judge. 

She stated this back in 2008, which shows how long the case has taken to come to court. The Daily Telegraph tried to make amends, admitting the interview allegation was false back in April 2009 and publishing an apology in September that same year.  But Ms Thornton stuck to her guns, with the result that the judge found in her favour, fining the newspaper a total of 65,000 pounds.

The Daily Telegraph is now appealing, muttering about the implications for freedom of expression. Obviously, Sarah Thornton will have to wait for her money, but at least she has achieved vindication.

Does the paper have a point?  Other papers think so.  A commentator with the Belfast Telegraph piously hopes that critics' knives won't be blunted by the grubby affair.  Critics, they claim, are never maliciously inclined -- there are no critics who would deliberately set out to kill a book.

None?  None at all?
Meantime, thank God for impartial observers like Mr Justice Tugendhat, UK's most senior media judge, who called Lynn Barber's claim "a malicious falsehood."

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