‘Wagatha Christie’ puts England’s legal system on trial in the age of social media | Libel Law

The “Wagatha Christie” libel trial opened with a cry of despair from Coleen Rooney’s lawyer: “This whole court might be thinking: why the hell are we here? »

After nearly two weeks of hearings, it was a question that many of those who participated or watched – including Rebekah Vardy, Coleen Rooney, two former England footballers, dozens of journalists and the judge, Mrs Justice Steyn – could have arisen. at one point. (In reality, the lawyers involved may have just been there, knowing they’re willing to split hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees.)

But how did Rooney’s social media post in 2019 alleging “Rebekah Vardy’s account” was leaking stories from a private Instagram account to The Sun play out in this legal media circus?

The simple answer, according to Rooney’s solicitor David Sherborne, is that Vardy has decided to pursue and take his multi-million pound libel claim against Rooney to court no matter what, turning down offers of a mediated result in an effort to clear her name and restore her. reputation.

The most problematic answer is that the case revealed how – 15 years after social media became widespread – English libel law still struggles to cope with a world in which everyone is a publisher.

It’s a universe where unmediated idle chat on video feeds reaches millions, where celebrity Instagram accounts have more readers than some national newspapers, and where some of the nation’s top legal minds spend time debate 😂 emoji.

The lawsuit showed that the way we communicate as a society – and in turn make potentially defamatory accusations – has changed for good. Whether the justice system can handle it is another question.

On the final day of the trial, Hugh Tomlinson QC, acting for Vardy, complained that the media was full of jokes about “lawyers’ ignorance” of technical matters relating to the case. He was right – but that doesn’t mean the jokers aren’t right.

At another point, Tomlinson repeatedly pressed Rooney during cross-examination by suggesting that a photo taken in the Instagram app and uploaded directly to its Stories feature would have automatically been saved to his camera roll. This was part of his larger point about how loss of evidence can affect anyone – but any teenager could tell you that the “save to camera roll” feature is an optional feature. Rooney, very millennial despite his two decades in the public eye, made that clear.

Pages and pages of emoji-laden WhatsApp have been analyzed for meaning as the legal documents system struggles to process the different smiley face shapes. At one point, Rooney’s attorney, Sherborne, described a message sent by Vardy’s agent mocking Rooney, which ended with a series of “laughing emojis”.

Vardy told the court she disputed that characterization of the document: “I don’t know if they’re laughing at the emojis.”

Sherborne replied, somewhat dismissively, “OK, crying with laughter.”

Some parts were perhaps more theatrical than ignorant, like when Sherborne asked Vardy to explain what “FFS” stood for in a WhatsApp message.

Vardy awkwardly checked what she could say with the judge before replying, “For shit sake.”

The potentially most pivotal decision in the whole case came in November 2020, when Rooney’s legal team unsuccessfully argued that the general public understood that celebrities were sharing their social media account login details with their friends. officers.

Judge Nicklin disagreed, ruling that the true legal meaning of the post accusing “Rebekah Vardy’s account” was actually a direct accusation against Vardy herself. This allowed Vardy to argue at trial that – while it may have been his account that was used to leak – his agent Caroline Watt was potentially acting unilaterally.

Government officials and prominent lawyers not involved in the case have been following the proceedings closely – in part because, like most other citizens, they are voracious gossip. But there is a more serious concern that the proceedings will not be good publicity for the English legal system. They worry about public mockery of how potential evidence was lost by Vardy and his agent, such as a phone dropped off the side of a boat in the North Sea shortly after a request was made to search it.

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But most telling is how Rooney made his initial accusation against Vardy. No one — not even her husband, Wayne — knew she had been running an undercover operation by posting fake Instagram updates and limiting viewership until only Vardy’s account remained. In the past, Rooney might have passed on the findings of his investigation to a friendly reporter, who consulted with the outlet’s lawyers on how best to report him, before heading to Vardy for comment.

Instead, Rooney penned his j’accuse letter in a notepad, before asking his brother to upload it to Twitter. Vardy’s attorneys made a big deal that she failed to follow standard journalistic practice in failing to give advance warning about her story.

It’s likely that a brief chat with a media lawyer about how to frame the accusation could have saved Rooney a lot of trouble. But the legal system should consider whether this is realistic for most members of the public, what individuals expect when posting material on social media, and whether they should be held to the same level as major publishers. news. Because as things stand, it might not be very long before we have another “Wagatha Christie” case.

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