Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.


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The Linehan Problem

For a long time now, I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan’s TV shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd.

Over the last couple of years, however, it’s emerged that he holds views that I disagree with, explored in an opinion piece from 2016, while this and other matters are still debated on his own Twitter account.

This entry is not to discuss the views themselves, but to question how to react to his writing in their wake. Can I still rate Moss playing Countdown as one of my top sitcom moments? Am I allowed to imitate Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea?

I accept that some artistic expression can change from from acceptable to offensive in as little as a decade or two. Last week, I saw John Cooper Clarke on stage. He included a poem from 1993 about a person he described as a ‘disgruntled transsexual’, containing outdated stereotypes, as did the introductory patter.

In Clarke’s case, only that poem was problematic, and he at least acknowledged how much controversy it causes today. For this reason, I don’t have the same problem enjoying his work as I do with that of Linehan, whose opinions I’m far less willing to accept.

An odd disconnect struck me while writing this. I’m also a fan of the musician Peter Doherty, who has a long criminal record, yet this doesn’t seem to factor into whether or not I can appreciate his work.

Perhaps the passage of time will determine whether a given person’s personal life overshadows their artisic work.

That said, a journalist friend has stopped using the Gill Sans font in her zine. Even though he died in 1940, she has an ethical problem with its inventor Eric Gill who was accused of abusing his own daughters.

An article in The Guardian from last year asks similar questions about Gill as I ask about Graham Linehan.