Insta-libel, Rooney & Vardy

27 November 2020

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Amidst the gloom of rapidly darkening November evenings, and the doom of a global pandemic, the London libel court has roared back into the public consciousness to provide the welcome distraction of celebs battling it out in public.

First we had The Sun’s comprehensive victory over Johnny Depp, as a result of which being labelled the worst pirate ever is now the least of his concerns, followed by Friday’s preliminary judgment in what some have christened Wagatha Christie, or the libel battle featuring Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney.

Celebrities in their own right, and both wives of England footballers (who, in what one assumes was a show of spousal solidarity, had unfollowed each other on social media) the dispute arose from a post Mrs. Rooney published on her Instagram and Twitter feeds.

The post detailed Mrs. Rooney’s suspicion that someone was leaking personal information derived from her personal social media to the press, and detailed the actions she had taken to identify the culprit, before ending with “It’s ……………. Rebekah Vardy’s account”.

Mrs. Vardy issued libel proceedings against Mrs. Rooney, and the parties agreed to hold a preliminary hearing on “meaning”, the focus of last Friday’s judgment.

Unlike in the real world, where, as Led Zeppelin famously sang, “sometimes words have two meanings” libel law requires words to have a single meaning. Once the meaning is settled, the Court determines whether the words are libellous of the aggrieved party.

In summary terms, Mrs. Vardy contended the words meant she had repeatedly leaked information from social media concerning Mrs. Rooney to the press, betraying the latter’s trust, whilst Mrs. Rooney contended the words meant there were reasonable grounds to suspect Mrs. Vardy was responsible for passing on information from social media about Mrs. Rooney to the press.

The task for the judge was to determine which of these, or indeed some other version, was the natural and ordinary meaning of the words that would be conveyed to the ordinary reasonable reader.

Although not adopting the exact phrasing Mrs. Vardy proposed, the judge determined a meaning similar to what she argued the words meant. In doing so, he pointed out Mrs. Rooney’s post told a story of a careful investigation, and took the form of a “whodunnit”, with the collection of dots designed to raise expectations of a………… “dramatic revelation”.

He also identified a number of references such as “someone”, “one person” and “who could it be”, in the course of rejecting Mrs. Rooney’s argument that the use of the word “account” supported her position.

Although the judge accepted that it was possible, in theory, for someone to use another’s social media account, he took the view that nobody regarded this as an everyday or normal occurrence for all social media users. When it came to celebrities, he took the view that it was not common knowledge that all celebrities use other people to run their social media, or that where such activity did occur, it was not common knowledge that it was done without the knowledge and approval of the account holder, thus rejecting another of Mrs. Rooney’s arguments. Finally, he pointed out that Mrs. Rooney’s post alluded to repeated leaks by Mrs. Vardy, and not a one-off incident that a reader might suppose was someone else’s doing.

In consequence, Mrs. Rooney now faces a hefty away team bill (£23,000) after the first leg, and the much more difficult task of defending a libel claim over words which convey Mrs. Vardy did something, rather than was suspected of doing it.

From the NI perspective, early observations in the judgment do not reflect well on libel practice here; in England, meaning applications, dealt with quickly and efficiently, are now the norm, a practice at least in part assisted by the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013.

Unfortunately, and for reasons best known to local politicians, Northern Ireland decided not to implement the Act, and libel law remains wholly unreformed, with some applicable laws more than a half a century old.

The topic of libel reform, and other issues concerning press freedom in Northern Ireland will be the subject of a special Society of Editors Regional Conference, which takes place online on Tuesday 1st December at 6pm.

Chaired by Martin Breen, with contributions from Sam McBride, Noel Doran, Allison Morris and Mike Nesbitt MLA amongst others, it is an event not to be missed. You can find more information and register at this link.

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