The threat of a libel action haunts some writers - it featured as a plot device in Andrew Garve's The Megstone Plot, a lively thriller of the Fifties, and there may be other examples. A claim of libel can be very damaging, not only because of the risk of having to pay out compensation, but also because a book that contains libellous material may have to be withdrawn, at great cost. Yet, because of the – sometimes unsatisfactory - way in which the libel laws work, there are various traps for the unwary.
Even very sensible people can become ensnared by libel law. Michael Gilbert, an eminent solicitor, ruefully told of how a short story he wrote landed him, and the magazine which published it, in trouble. I read about this mishap and once asked him about it, but it was plain that the memory was still painful. One of the main pitfalls is that it is possible to libel a person unintentionally (for instance, where there is a coincidental overlap between what you write and something or someone in real life) whereas most legal wrongs can only be committed if you are proved to have the intention to commit them.
The newspapers often campaign for a relaxation of the laws of libel. This is said to be in the public interest, although of course there is a degree of self-interest there, too. A complex society such as ours does need laws to protect the reputations of people, which can so easily be destroyed, causing much distress and without any justification. Yet a balance needs to be struck, because there is a genuine public interest in free speech. All of us (except for libel lawyers) would benefit from a simplification of the libel laws, and a method of dealing with alleged defamation that was easy and cheap to operate. Easier to wish for than to achieve, I appreciate.
I know some writers who say they aren’t bothered about libel, and merrily depict real people in their fictions. Not a course I would recommend. In my own case, I do make a serious effort to ensure that, even though I’m using the real settings of Liverpool and the Lake District, my characters, and the incidents in the story, are invented. I certainly would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, even by mistake. It was very different with Dancing for the Hangman, the only book in which I’ve used real people for a story. But there, not only Crippen, but all the other actors in the drama were long dead.