Mark Lewis

Libel in the theatre – could you be sued?

You’ve always wanted to write a play. You feel sure you have a brilliant play inside of you- it’s just waiting to get out and dazzle audiences across the world.

But where do you start?

“Write about what you know” -it’s what budding playwrights are so often told to do.

So you think about what you’ve done in your life, experiences you have had. A love affair, that nightmare of a person who made your life hell at work, a bully from school.

Then you sit down, and you start to write. The words just flow as you recall those people and events: the things they said, the details from their lives.

And you craft and hone your wonderful new play. You scrutinise every word, you imagine the set, you choose your cast. There is nothing you leave to chance.

But, wait a minute, because there is something else, and it is huge. But it is something so many playwrights forget to do.

And that something is to check the legality of their play.

Can you really say all those things, make all those references, mention all those events or are you, in fact, putting yourself at risk of being sued for libel – because yes that’s what it would be?

Surely it’s fine, so long as you change a few names here and there, or there’s a disclaimer buried somewhere in the publicity material?

But it really is not that simple, as Scenesaver discovered when we turned to leading lawyer Mark Lewis and asked him to provide some guidance on this complex issue.

And this is what he told us:

“What happens when an audience member recognises herself in the story being presented? Even if a coincidence there is a libel problem. Yes it happens, even when there are works of fiction. Even a published statement that “the work is entirely fiction, any resemblance of a character to a real person is purely coincidental” can have a limited effect.

The position is worse where there is a dramatization of a true story. All the characters need to give written permission, need to know what is going to be said or implied about them, so that the position is informed.

Plays are legal minefields. They bring into legal play, issues of privacy law, defamation and even Data Protection/GDPR.

Without wishing to create work for lawyers, all scripts need to be “libel read”. I was asked to keep this article down to 200 words, regrettably that is not possible. Even where a character is not named, so that a fictional character is created “Mr Xanadu of 22 Acacia Avenue, Bilongberry”, you end up with 2 claims, Mr Xanadu from Bilongberry brings a claim, as does, the person who has the same characteristics as the fictional Mr Xanadu, who brings a claim based upon “innuendo reference”.

The truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often identifiable by reference to fiction.”

Mark Lewis is a partner in Patron Law, specialising in defamation and privacy claims. Mark invented the “phone hacking” claims. He represented the family of Milly Dowler whose claim resulted in the closure of the News of the World. Mark pursued the libel claim against Facebook for Martin Lewis. 

Amongst Mark’s successes have been Jack Monroe’s claim against Katie Hopkins, and Rachel Riley’s claim against Laura Murray.  

Mark has acted for numerous people, some famous, others not, and helped many avoid infamy.  

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