Memoirs are fascinating to read because they are about real people (and sometimes organisations). But that very thing which makes them interesting raises the risk of someone taking legal action against you.
That doesn’t mean you can’t write about who or what you want, but you do have to be careful how you write about them.
Here are some things to think about before you embark on writing a memoir.
Defamation is a statement which damages a person’s reputation or does them harm. Libel is the term given to defamation in permanent form – such as print. Essentially, they are the same thing (Slander is similar, but is defamation through something which isn’t permanent – such as speech).
Being taken to court can be extremely expensive so it is vital that you do all that you can when writing your Memoir to guard against Libel. And remember, the burden of proofs lies with you and/or the Publisher, as the Defendant. This means you have to prove that what you are writing is true. In UK law (only) you have to prove that what you have said had no malicious intention. Which is incredibly hard to prove…
How to guard against Libelling someone or something (ie an organisation) in your memoir
Make sure what you are writing is TRUE. But you have to be able to PROVE that something is true. Make sure you have the facts to back up a statement.
This applies to repeating statements that have been made by someone else and printed previously (eg in newspapers or other books). Even if they are true, you have to be able to prove that they are true. It is not enough to simply point to these earlier printed statements, even if the authors of those statements were never sued for Libel.
Opinion – a defamation claim can only be based on something stated as Fact. In theory, sharing an opinion should allow you to avoid defamation. But simply saying “In my opinion……” most likely won’t be enough. You will need to show reasoning and evidence to back up such an opinion.
Assumption – be careful about adding two and two, and coming up with five! Just because someone has been seen in conversation with, say, a criminal, it doesn’t make them a criminal or involved in criminal activity.
Words are powerful – think about the words you use to describe someone or something. If that word gives a bad impression about that person or organisation, you might be accused of Libel.
The last word goes to the Dead
You cannot libel someone who is dead.
Everyone is entitled to the right to Privacy. Even if what you are saying about someone is true and if you have not Libelled anyone, you may have in fact invaded their privacy when writing about them.
How to guard against invading someone’s privacy in your memoir
Disguise – change people’s names and any defining characteristics.
The above may not be enough. If you are writing about a very specific time and place, think about whether someone could identify themselves in your book because of this.
And as per Libel, you cannot invade the privacy of the dead.
A final general rule
One way to avoid any of the above is to get sign-off from any major characters in your memoir. Of course, the circumstances will dictate whether this is advisable, but if you are writing a Family memoir and you want to keep good relations (!), then it is a good idea to get this sign-off, either informally or formally.
Euan Thorneycroft is a Literary Agent at AM Heath, London and one of the Bridport Prize memoir and novel partners.