Reality television star Rebekah Vardy on Friday lost her claim against TV personality Coleen Rooney at London’s High Court in a case that highlights how social media has become a new battleground for defamation laws.
The judge ruled in favor of Rooney, ending the dramatic case — dubbed “Wagatha Christie” — centering on the two footballers’ wives that has generated global headlines and tales of tabloid newspaper intrigue.
The high-profile claim was brought by Vardy, who is married to Leicester City player Jamie Vardy, against Rooney, wife of Wayne Rooney, a former Manchester United and England captain.
Vardy had sought to clear her name after Rooney ran a “sting operation” three years ago to establish the source of leaks from her private Instagram account. In October 2019 Rooney accused Vardy of leaking stories about her private life to The Sun newspaper.
In her ruling Mrs Justice Steyn found that on the balance of probability Vardy had leaked the story about Rooney to the press.
The case lasted seven days, generating a media circus, with barristers poring over pages of WhatsApp exchanges and debating the meaning of emojis used in them.
It has shone a light on social media as the new frontier for defamation law where everyone is a publisher, according to legal experts.
“Twitter spats are increasingly becoming our litigation landscape,” said Matthew Dando, a litigator and specialist in media law at Wiggin. “The usual laws apply [online] from a libel perspective.”
“But you get accusations that are much more shot from the hip. . . and things like emojis complicated meanings,” he added.
WhatsApp messages exchanged by Rooney and Vardy peppered with emojis were examined as evidence during the hearing, prompting the judge to consider the meaning of the pictograms commonly used in texts.
Such considerations have become more relevant as celebrities increasingly use platforms such as Instagram to set their own news agendas, circumventing traditional media outlets.
In 2019, Rooney set up an elaborate trap on Instagram by posting a series of fake stories then restricting the number of followers that could see them, waiting to see if the stories appeared in the press, until only Vardy was left as a suspect.
The case is estimated to have cost millions of pounds in legal fees and has highlighted the use of London’s courts and England’s libel laws by the rich and powerful to settle their personal battles.
The judge said Vardy, along with her agent Caroline Watt, was “party to the disclosure to The Sun” of fake stories, for example, one about Rooney making a trip to Mexico to undergo a “gender selection” procedure to have a baby girl , and a piece about her basement flooding.
Justice Steyn said it was “likely” that Watt “undertook the direct act” of passing stories to the press but that Vardy “knew and condoned” the conduct. She added that it was probable that Watt “deliberately dropped her phone in the sea” to avoid handing over messages requested by the court.
Libel litigation rakes in high fees for London law firms. Legal bills for Rooney and Vardy are likely to exceed £1mn. Vardy could now be forced to pay Rooney’s costs, because of the “loser pays” rule in English civil litigation. The total will be determined at a later hearing.
Rooney said in a statement that she was “pleased” the ruling had gone in her favor but that she “never believed” the case should have gone to court “at such expense in times of hardship for so many people when the money could have been far better spent helping others”.