LONDON – A candid window into the glamorous world of English football and exposing the machinations of celebrities who stab in the back. The phone was lost at sea along with the evidence it allegedly contained. And legal unit with powerful lawyers sorting out WhatsApp’s private messages in open court, and tears flowed at the witness stand.
These were some of the disturbing gossip aspects of the libel case, which is disputed by the wives of two famous English footballers, which is expected to end on Thursday. A trial focused on the Instagram feud between the two women swept Britain last week, with both establishment media and breathless tabloids covering every exposure, and photographers battling to photograph celebrities arriving near London’s courtroom.
A judge in the case will later rule on whether one of the women, Colin Rooney, slandered another, Rebecca Vardy, in social media reports accusing Ms. Wardy of leaking Ms. Rooney’s personal information to The Sun.
The tabloids cover the wives and girlfriends of footballers (widely known in Britain under the acronym WAG) intensely, and both women used their attention to create a huge number of subscribers on social media and achieve fame as media personalities. Both took a stand during the trial, dressed in a variety of designer clothes (disassembled by the media for hidden messages).
Widespread curiosity in the process should come as no surprise, said Adrian Bingham, a professor of contemporary British history at the University of Sheffield who has studied media and gender issues. “The essence of a good story remains the same,” he said, noting the “healthy business of sex, deception, money and fame” in the case.
“We don’t know how the story ends, so it’s interesting,” he added. “Who did it? Who will be found guilty? ”
The public sparring Between the two women began in October 2019 after Ms. Rooney revealed online that a follower of her private Instagram account was giving information to a tabloid newspaper. She added that she had a suspicion of who the leak was, explaining that she had organized an operation during which she gradually limited her followers to only one account – Ms. Vardy – and then published false stories to find out if they will appear in the media.
Ms. Rooney said the stories were indeed picked up, and she revealed the results of her investigation in an online statement accusing Ms. Vardi of leaking them. Ms. Rooney’s obvious search skills led to the case becoming known as the “Weighing Christie’s Case” – a play on the acronym WAG and the name of detective writer Agatha Christie.
Asked in court by Ms. Vardi’s lawyer what she intended to achieve with her online statement, Ms. Rooney replied: “I have achieved nothing; I wanted to stop the person who passed on my personal information to The Sun ”.
“It was my last resort,” she added.
Ms Vardy denies being behind the leak, and said several people had access to her account. As a result of Ms. Rooney’s report, she said she received verbal insults from the public during her pregnancy, including threats against the child she was raising.
“I was called a leak, and that’s unpleasant,” Ms. Vardy said during the hearing.
In 2020, Ms. Vardy launched a libel lawsuit against Ms. Rooney, and because the two women failed to reach an agreement, the case went to court – an unusual and expensive process that will cost millions of pounds in legal costs, according to lawyers.
With such huge sums at stake and the personal lives of the rich and famous on full attention in court, hostility quickly gripped much of the British public.
Even more serious news agencies, which tend to ignore such celebrity quarrels, have found their way into the story by analyzing the broader implications of widespread use of social media, Professor Bingham said.
“There’s a legitimacy to talk about it because it’s in the courtroom and it raises really serious privacy issues,” he noted.
And for the tabloids it was feeding. Atali Matthews, a London lawyer who specializes in libel, said that the personal information that appeared in court, in fact, blew up the privacy of both parties so that the press can report it with impunity.
The interest was so high that those present poured out in the courtroom in London. The juicy revelations were published on blogs by live journalists and summarized by various news items such as the BBC and The Daily Mail – although by Thursday, journalists waiting outside the courtroom seemed ready for the trial.
Ms. Rooney and her husband, former England football captain Wayne Rooney, felt tense in the marriage, it turned out during one session. WhatsApp reports between Ms. Vardy and her agent Caroline Watt insulted Ms. Rooney and discussed leaked stories about other people in exchange for payment, the court also heard. And the phone, which potentially contained relevant WhatsApp messages, was accidentally dropped by Ms. Watt into the North Sea, Ms. Wardy’s lawyer said – an accident that, according to Ms. Rooney’s lawyer, was a case of concealing evidence.
Ms. Vardy admitted that Ms. Watt had previously passed on information about Ms. Rooney to The Sun, but Ms. Vardy’s lawyers argued that there was insufficient evidence that Ms. Wardy herself was responsible for any leaks. They also said that Ms. Wat was ill and therefore could not testify.
If Ms. Vardy wins the defamation lawsuit, legal experts say the damage is likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds, and Ms. Rooney will likely have to pay legal costs to her opponent. If Ms. Rooney wins, Ms. Vardy will be left with a bill to pay the fees, and she may face a counterclaim for breach of confidentiality, said the defamation lawyer Ms. Matthews.
“The process will not change the image of slander as a sanctuary for the rich,” Ms. Matthews added, noting that few have the money to take risks in such lawsuits.
But, Ms. Matthews said, it could force people to reconsider before publishing materials that could seriously damage someone’s reputation.
Whatever the outcome, the case highlighted the tensions inherent between the pursuit of privacy and the price of fame. “That’s what tabloid culture is, and we’re just seeing a new iteration of that in the age of social media,” Professor Bingham said.