Two high profile defamation cases compared

Judith Thompson  16-05-2022

Two high-profile defamation cases are in progress, on each side of the Atlantic.

In the US, Pirates of the Caribbean star, Johnny Depp, seeks to prove his ex-wife, Amber Heard, who plays a lead role in Aquaman, defamed him in a 2018 op-ed piece she wrote for the Washington Post. In it, she said: “Two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

Here in the UK, the WAGatha Christie saga rumbles on, as Rebecca Vardy denies leaking stories about Colleen Rooney to the media, and is suing her fellow WAG for libel.

Both cases feature charismatic, larger-than-life protagonists, and showcase irresistible snippets of celebrity gossip, but what effect do these cases have upon the public's understanding of libel laws, and the seriousness of bringing such cases?

Depp v Heard

Millions of people are tuning in each day to watch as Johnny Depp sues his ex-wife Amber Heard for $50m in a defamation trial in Virginia, USA. Viewers are glued to their screens as sordid scenes from an unhappy marriage marinaded in drugs and alcohol unfold, revelling in the details: the severed finger, the suspiciously soiled bed.

Of the 9 million viewers watching the Depp v Heard coverage every day, 35% are in the United States, where the trial is taking place, meaning 65% are choosing to tune in to a televised court case in a different legal jurisdiction. It is estimated that 7% of viewers are in the UK.

Across social media, the trial has, ironically, spawned more defamation, with countless memes and TikToks popping up as the audience treats justice as a spectator sport.

The public, dispensing with the need for judge, jury, or even proof, has already judged Depp to be innocent - #TeamJohnny hashtags proliferate - and Heard a liar intent on wrecking his career. Since the bed incident hit the tabloids (or the fan) Heard has been renamed #AmberTurd. The legal process has been, effectively, undermined.

The Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard libel trial is being heard in a court in Virginia where cameras are allowed, under approval of a judge.

The rationale behind having cameras in the courtroom is to restore Americans’ wobbly faith in the criminal justice system. Cameras represent a transparency that is sorely needed.

While this may be true in the cases of Dereck Chauvin or O J Simpson, for example, when it comes to actors squabbling publicly in a courtroom, there is a risk that the result will be an audition or screen test, with both playing to the camera, and the better-loved character winning, in the ‘court of public opinion’, at least.

Vardy v Rooney

In the UK, there are no cameras in the High Court; they are regarded as potentially detrimental to the legal process, and there is a consensus that the legal process is not a source of public entertainment. However, a brief look at what Marina Hyde in the Guardian referred to as ‘WAGnarok’ makes a mockery of this.

The high-profile – albeit untelevised -  libel trial featuring Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy is drawing to a close. While there have been no opportunities for the participants to play to the cameras, there have been unforgettable quotes, a war of wardrobes, and a snippet regarding a phone full of evidence that fell into the North Sea at the least – or most – opportune of moments.

Coleen Rooney, a TV presenter, and Rebekah Vardy, a model and media personality, both initially rose to prominence as WAGS – wives (and/or girlfriends) of footballers. Coleen Rooney is married to professional football manager and former England player, Wayne Rooney, while Rebekah Vardy is married to Leicester City striker, Jamie Vardy.

Last year, Rooney accused fellow WAG, Vardy, of leaking information from her personal private Instagram account to British tabloids. Rooney made the allegation after apparently ensnaring Vardy in an Instagram sting operation that earned her the alias of WAGatha Christie.

Vardy has vehemently denied the allegations, and has taken Rooney to court for defamation.

Vardy is losing, in the all-important court of public opinion. Her clothing choices are criticised on TikTok; she receives death threats and horrific abuse.

The UK may be holding out against TV cameras in the courtroom in the name of the legal process, but WAGnarok, gleefully live-tweeted and vlogged to social media platforms, shows that this hardly matters.

Harming our defamation laws?

There is concern amongst libel practitioners that together, these two cases could harm the public's respect for the legal system and in particular, those who participate in defamation cases.

The two cases referred to above are a far cry from more run-of-the-mill defamation cases, which rarely make the headlines: the person wrongly accused of being a paedophile; the woman accused of being a prostitute by an ex; a brother accusing a sister of stealing from their parents; or a local newspaper printing a picture of the wrong person when reporting about a crime.

All of these are real cases that we have dealt with, and won damages for our clients, where the consequences for ordinary people have been devastating. In some cases, the victims have lost their jobs, had to move house and been ostracised by friends and family. 

Contact the team at Samuels for advice on reputation management, including libel and defamation.

Article credit: Lalla Merlin

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