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Rough guide to libel.

Writers have to be careful what they publish about living people Ė you can say what you like about the dead! It can be acceptable to hurl the odd insult but if you defame someone who is still alive, they could sue. You have to ask yourself; ĎWould a reasonable person think that what I have written would cause the subject to be hated, ridiculed, viewed with contempt, ostracised, disliked or held in lower esteem?í

If you do write something that seems to be defamatory, but you believe that what you have implied is true, you will have to prove the truth should the case come to court. Itíll be no good telling the jury that you didnít intend to defame unless, in matters of public interest, you can establish that what you wrote was Ďfair commentí ie a matter of opinion, not fact. European free speech law strengthens this defence.

Itís no good, though, claiming that a third party gave you the defamatory information. If you write it down, itís up to you to prove the truth of it.

Bear in mind also that defamation can be very loosely interpreted when you are writing about the lives of ordinary people. There is an obligation to take account of the right to privacy. Anything you reveal which a reasonable person might decide should be kept private could land you in trouble. Be wary of innuendo and irony; these are no defences. Remember, also, that the bad action need not be voluntary; for example, calling someone Ďmadí can be defamatory even though becoming mentally ill is not usually deliberate

Itís not just writers of non-fiction who have to be careful. Novelists who, deliberately or otherwise, use the names of people they know, or once knew, run the risk of being taken to court, especially where there are strong parallels between the real and the fictional lives. There is also a risk, even though the names have been changed, if there are ways of identifying people through their roles or relationships. It is customary in such circumstances to insert a paragraph at the front of the book which denies any real identification.

In relatively rare cases, libel can be a criminal matter. You could be at risk of being fined or imprisoned if you defame or if you publish obscene, seditious or blasphemous material. Oddly, only Christianity is protected by the blasphemy law in the United Kingdom

Many publishers have insurance against the risk of being sued for libel but make sure you read the small print of your contract; sometimes such insurance does not cover the writer and does not come into play until large sums are involved. One way of avoiding problems is to ask the likely plaintiff to approve publication of the defamatory words but, understandably, this happens rarely. If the publisher suggests having all or part of your work read by a libel lawyer, be sure to establish who is paying for this service.

If you are to be sued or prosecuted, seek specialised legal help. Donít lash out defensively; it can make matters much worse. If you feel that you are unlikely to win the case, think seriously about making an offer of amends or, where newspaper and magazine articles are concerned, issuing a public apology.

For a look at the law itself: http://www.hmso.gov.uk/arts/acts1996/1996031.htm#aofs

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