Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is suing the Daily Mail for libel after they published an article in September titled “How JK Rowling’s sob story about her past as a single mother has left the churchgoers who cared for her upset and bewildered” online and “How JK Rowling’s sob story about her single mother past has surprised and confused the church members who cared for her” in print. The article related to a recent piece Rowling had written for a charity website about the struggles faced by single parents. This case comes at an interesting time legally, as libel laws in the UK have recently changed.
The legal documents for the case explain the reason for the suit:
In their natural and ordinary meaning, and in the context in which they appeared, the said words meant and were understood to mean that the claimant had given a knowingly false account of her time as a single mother in Edinburgh in which she falsely and inexcusably accused her fellow churchgoers of behaving in a bigoted, unchristian manner towards her, of stigmatising her and cruelly taunting her for being a single mother… Not only is the allegation complained of self-evidently of a serious nature, but it was premised on a false picture of the claimant’s article on the Gingerbread website. As the defendant’s journalist must have known (since he had read the article) the claimant had not accused her fellow churchgoers of ‘stigmatising’ or ‘cruelly taunting’ her; rather, she had referred to a single occasion involving a woman who had visited the church one day whilst she was working there. There was thus no basis in fact for the central premise of the article.
The article written by Rowling and referenced by The Daily Mail was for the Gingerbread website – Gingerbread being an organization that offers support to single parents. Rowling is the President of Gingerbread and wrote in support of single parents and the unique difficulties they face. In this piece, she mentions her time working at a local church for a few hours a week and how she dealt with the stigma of being a single parent.
I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother. I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?
This comment specifically relates to being a single mother (single fathers, of course, deal with their own set of complicated issues) in that for a long time if you were raising a child alone as a woman you were seen as “fallen” or something similar. The way single parents are treated is often a prime example of how the patriarchy hurts everyone, where women are shamed for not having a man to take care of them and men are expected to not care for their children. This is getting better, of course, but Rowling’s treatment even in the 90s shows that it’s still a long way from being perfect. But other than talking about the work she did there, the above quote is the extent to which she comments on the church at all. The Daily Mail article has been removed, so it’s hard to tell what quotes they may have gotten from her fellow churchgoers. Still, it’s hard to claim from the quote above that she was complaining about them. It was more of a comment on the difficulties of being a single mother in any environment.
The UK has long been home to various defamation suits even from Americans due to their laws that allowed suits to be brought with no requirement that plaintiffs show malice or harm. This is the first major case to be brought after those laws were changed to put a little more burden on the plaintiffs to make their case more along the lines of what’s required in the United States. Depending on how this case is handled, it could affect the interpretation of these new laws going forward. There will certainly be an increased responsibility on the part of Rowling’s lawyers to prove that she has been harmed by the Daily Mail’s article.
(via The Hollywood Reporter)
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