Libel | Factsheets
WritersServices Factsheet 15 by Michael Legat
A writer can be accused of libel only if what is written can be considered to be damaging to the person concerned.
If the libel denigrates the person’s professional work, it will be more damaging.
If you write libellously about a person, basing a fictional character on someone known to you, you should not think that changing the person’s name will protect you from being sued for libel. If anyone can recognise the portrait you have painted as being that of the person concerned, however disguised, you still risk a suit for libel.
It is important when writing about professional people to be sure that you don’t by accident give your character the name of a real-life person. For example, if your character is a doctor, check the name against a BMA list.
You cannot libel the dead, although it is possible that a comment about someone no longer living may be libellous of that person’s relatives, colleagues or friends.
If the person about whom you have written is known to have been proved guilty of certain crimes, you may write about that person and his/her criminal activities without fear of being sued for libel. However, caution is the watchword if you want to accuse the person on other grounds, which could be libellous.
The main defence against a suit for libel is that the matter complained of is true, but it will be necessary to prove its truth, which is often very difficult.
You may also be able to defend yourself if you can show that you were unaware of the libelled person’s existence and bore no malice against him/her. However, you will still have to issue an apology, and your book or other work may have to be withdrawn.
Libel should always be avoided. A libel suit terrifies publishers, can end an author’s career, and may render both author and publisher bankrupt.
If you have knowingly written libellous material, or suspect that you may have done so, you should inform your publisher and obtain advice from a lawyer specialising in libel cases.
© Michael Legat 2001