Miles Kington Remembered: You can't libel the dead – unless they come back to life

He took the view that he was bound to win, and even if he didn't get substantial damages, he would make history by being the first person to sue an obituary for libel

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(3 April 1998) Yesterday I began telling you the story of Martin Trapp, an expert in the history of American showbiz, who was kept fully employed writing obituaries of, and tributes to, the aged survivors of the golden age of American showbiz. Indeed, his obituaries were so well thought of that he was induced to publish a book composed entirely of the death notices he had written of other people, which sounds ghoulish but is no more so than any biographical encyclopaedia, which after all is no more than a collection of glorified obituaries...

A reader writes: Just spare us the catchpenny philosophy and get on with the story! Yesterday you said that Martin Trapp was going to die in this episode.

That is not quite what I said. What I said was that Martin Trapp became so obsessed with obituaries that he conceived a desire to know what people would say about him after he died. Now, there was one easy way to find out and that was to sneak a look at his obituary in the newspaper offices where he worked. He was an habitué of several obituary offices, and thought he would be able to get access to forthcoming death notices, and see what had been written about him; in which he was wrong, because security is very tight in these places, on the principle that nobody must ever know what is being written about him before he dies.

A reader writes: Of course, Martin Trapp may have been unable to find his obituary because they hadn't written one about him. Maybe they didn't think he was worth obituarising.

Quite possible, but that wouldn't have occurred to him. Everyone who is in the habit of reading and writing obituaries believes deep down that he too is worth having an obituary written of him.

A reader inquires: So he faked his own death? Well, he thought about it. He toyed with the idea of faking his own disappearance...

A reader asks: Would that have been enough? To disappear? I mean, Lord Lucan disappeared pretty comprehensively, but I have never seen his obituary anywhere.

That was probably because Lord Lucan was a feckless layabout who never did anything interesting or worthwhile. The only thing that Lord Lucan did of note in his life was the very last thing he did which was to disappear before he could be arrested after he had murdered his nanny ... No, Martin Trapp decided to fake his own suicide, but before he could decide on a method which would suggest his death without actually involving a corpse, the matter was taken out of his hands. He was due to fly on a plane to Edinburgh. He missed the flight. The plane crashed. All his friends assumed he had caught the flight, and the airline also assumed that he was on the passenger list. Nobody survived the crash.

Well, Martin Trapp delayed the announcement of his survival long enough to buy the next day's papers, and sure enough there were several long pieces on him. They paid tribute to his encyclopaedic knowledge of showbiz history, which pleased him, but there were other things which pleased him less well. He was accused by several of his rivals of shameless plagiarism and unoriginality. His private life was raked over (Martin had been married, and had then come out as gay and some of the details made racy reading) and the smell that was left by these obituaries was scandalous and sulphurous rather than saintly.

A reader writes: He should have sued them for libel.

And that is exactly what he did! He came back to life and sued the lot of them for libel. He took the view that he was bound to win, and that even if he didn't get substantial damages, he would make history by being the first person to sue an obituary for libel. You cannot libel the dead, you see, but if the dead come back to life, then it's rather different. Now, normally the defence in a libel case is either that the libel is true or fair comment, but in this case all the obituarists pleaded that Martin Trapp was deemed dead at the time and therefore was de jure if not de facto dead, and therefore they were justified in being as frank as an obituary would allow.

A reader writes: And what was the outcome?

Lord Lucan writes: I must warn you, Mr Kington, that I fully intend to sue you for libel for saying earlier on that I was a layabout and murderer and that I never did anything worthwhile in my life.

A solicitor writes: I would advise you, Mr Kington, to say no more on this matter and end the article right here.

Miles Kington writes: Righty ho.

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