Fiction and the Laws of Libel
Libel is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“A published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation.”“A false and typically malicious statement about a person.”“A thing that brings undeserved discredit on a person by misrepresentation.”
Libel covers books, other printed material, internet, radio and television, drama and fiction.
A person can sue for libel if something published:
- exposes them to hatred, ridicule or contempt;
- causes them to be shunned or avoided;
- generally lowers them in the eyes of society;
- discredits them in their trade, business or profession.
Almost uniquely in English law, in libel cases the burden of proof lies with the author or publisher and not the complainant. The person the author has targeted does not have to prove that they are wrong.
- You cannot defend a libel by saying it was a quote from someone else.
- You cannot defend a libel by including the disclaimer “All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
In England and Wales, you cannot libel a dead person. In other countries, you can. See the story below.
Heather Morris, the author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, has been threatened with legal action in the US by the stepson of Cecilia Kovachova around whom Morris’s second novel is thought to be based.
Cilka’s Journey, which was published in October 2019 in the UK and the US, follows The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which was based on the story of the Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov. He told Morris how he fell in love with a woman he tattooed while he was in the concentration camp. The sequel Cilka’s Journey is marketed as “based on the true story of Cilka Klein” (the fictional name for Kovachova) with Morris said to have drawn on “first-hand testimony through conversations with survivors, and through extensive research in Slovakia”.
But George Kovach, the stepson of Cecilia Kovachova, accuses the writer of sullying his stepmother’s name with “‘hurtful, devastating lies” for commercial gains. In particular, he disputes she was ever “a sex slave” as is portrayed in the book (In Morris’s story, Cilka Klein has a sexual relationship with the head of the camp, SS-Obersturmführer Schwarzhuber), adding she “did not do any of the things that have been written by Morris”.
In her defence, Morris says, “I’ve said from the start, all I’m doing is telling the story that Lale told me.”
Kovach’s lawyer believes they have established the right to bring the case to court in the US, using Slovakian law, which allows relatives to file for reputational damage to a person even after they have died.