It’s celebrity autobiography season – what to do if you are libelled in a book

15 October 2014

We are now officially in the run up to Christmas. One of the many signs of this is the sudden appearance of a spate of celebrity autobiographies. Not only are these autobiographies now hitting the shelves, but in many cases, the contents of the books are trailed by a series of extracts published in selected newspapers.

One of the main selling points of celebrity autobiographies is the often lurid revelations contained in such books about other public figures. There has been a great deal of coverage in the press, spread over many days, on the comments made about colleagues by Kevin Pietersen, Roy Keane, and Rio Ferdinand, for example. It is not just sporting autobiographies which hit the headlines – stories have also recently appeared in the press arising from the publication of autobiographies by Kelly Brook and Lord Tim Bell.

Before publication, lawyers will no doubt have carefully reviewed these books to ensure that the published statements are legal. But what do you do if you are wrongly named and shamed in a celebrity’s autobiography?

You may have a claim, on which a Court can award damages, and an injunction restraining future publication of the offending material, if:

  • False allegations are made about you (explicitly or implicitly), which are likely to cause serious harm to your reputation; or
  • The matters published infringe on your right to respect for your private life or that of your family.                       

A few issues which are worth noting:

  • An author cannot necessarily avoid liability simply by not using or changing the name (or even, it has been shown, the sex) of your character in their book.  If the subject of the allegations is still identifiable by a sufficient section of the book’s readership, then a claim can be made.
  •  Authors as well as publishers may find themselves personally liable in the event of a claim, and therefore have a vested interest in staying the right side of the law.
  • There has been much comment that changes made by the Defamation Act 2013 will make it harder to succeed in libel claims. However (depending on precisely what allegations are made), the majority of these changes will not impact on a claim made in relation to a widely published autobiography.
  • It can be difficult (and possibly counter-productive) to make a claim in relation to allegations which are true (and not of a private nature), or are based on the honestly held personal opinion of the author.
  • Due to the difference in free speech laws in different countries, it is possible that books might be pulled in one country, whilst remaining on sale in another. Amanda Knox’s book, for instance, was on sale in Italy but not in the UK. However even if this is the case, the element of “vindication” which is achieved by getting a book pulled from sale in any country is often important.

The best stage at which to take action would of course be prior to publication. You may become aware that a book is being written which contains allegations about you. It might be via press “teasers” such as those discussed above. Or the publisher might even contact you if you are named in a book prior to the publication, to seek your side of the story (and thereby reduce their libel risk). However, they have no duty to do so - this was confirmed following an unsuccessful attempt by Max Mosley to obtain a right to “prior notification” at the European Court of Human Rights.

If you do become aware of the possibility of unsavoury allegations being published about you, the key is to seek immediate advice from lawyers. Any action taken must be swift but carefully considered. There is a risk that an ill-judged and unfairly oppressive restraint attempt itself could be reported on, increasing the book’s sales. It remains difficult (although not impossible) due to free speech laws to obtain an injunction based in libel against publication before a book is published. However an injunction might be obtained if the book infringes privacy rights, for instance. As long as the action taken is well-thought-out, even if it does not prevent publication, it may result in a dilution of what is eventually published.

If the book is not prevented from publication, the next point at which action can be taken is the book’s first print run. If a book contains libellous allegations, unsold copies can be pulled from sale and pulped. Examples from recent years of books withdrawn from sale include biographies of jockey Kieron Fallon and reality starlet Kate Gosselin. Even if the book is not pulled, significant changes might be made to subsequent print runs, including paperback and e-book editions.

In summary, even if you are featured prominently in a celebrity autobiography, by taking prompt and well thought out action, you might be able to avoid being the main topic of conversation around the Christmas dinner table.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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