In previous blogs (see links at the bottom of this article), we have followed the progress of the much publicised defamation case brought by Rebekah Vardy against Coleen Rooney.
This long-running and bitterly fought case has finally come to an end. The final hearing was to determine whether the defences run by Coleen Rooney should be successful. The defences pursued were:
- That the statements made were substantially true; and
- That the disclosures made in the statements were in the public interest.
At a previous hearing, the Court found that the single meaning of the comments made by Coleen Rooney about Rebekah Vardy was as follows:
“Over a period of years, Ms Vardy had regularly and frequently abused her status as a trusted follower of Ms Rooney’s personal Instagram account by secretly informing The Sun newspaper of Ms Rooney’s private posts and stories, thereby making public without Ms Rooney’s permission a great deal of information about Ms Rooney, her friends, and family which she did not want made public.”
Were the statements made by Coleen Rooney about Rebekah Vardy substantially true?
In determining whether a comment is substantially true ‘the defendant … has to establish the ‘essential’ or ‘substantial’ truth of the sting of the libel. To prove the truth of some lesser defamatory meaning does not provide a complete defence’ (a quote from the Court of Appeal’s decision in Chase v News Group Newspapers Ltd ). This is qualified by the judgment in Turcu v News Group Newspapers Ltd , which states:
“(iii) In deciding whether any given defamatory imputation is substantially true, the Court will have well in mind the requirement to allow for exaggeration, at the margins, and have regard in that context also to proportionality. Having regard to its overall gravity and the relative significance of any elements of inaccuracy or exaggeration, has the substantial sting been proved? It is no part of the Court’s function to penalise a defendant for sloppy journalism – still less for tastelessness of style…”
Were the statements made in the public interest?
In respect of the public interest defence, Coleen Rooney had to establish the following (as set out in Banks v Cadwalladr ):
“i) Was the statement complained of on a matter of public interest, or did it form part of such a statement?
- ii) If so, did the defendant believe that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest?
iii) If so, was that belief reasonable?”
Coleen Rooney v Rebekah Vardy Judgment
Once Mrs Justice Steyn had heard the evidence from all parties, she set out in her judgment her view on the credibility of the evidence of the parties. It is fair to say that she did not find Rebekah Vardy particularly credible. On this point, Mrs Justice Steyn stated:
“41. Although significant parts of Ms Vardy’s evidence were not credible, my assessment is that she is genuinely offended by the accusation made against her by Ms Rooney in the Reveal Post. However, that is not because she was not involved in disclosing information from the Private Instagram Account: I have found that she was. Rather, her indignation at the accusation flows, in my judgment, from a combination of factors. Ms Vardy’s part in disclosing information to The Sun was, it seems to me, unthinking rather than part of a considered and concerted business practice. Consequently, there has been a degree of self-deception on her part regarding the extent to which she was involved, as well as a degree of justified resentment at the exaggerated way in which her role has at times been presented during the litigation.”
Whereas, this can be contrasted by Mrs Justice Steyn’s comments on Coleen Rooney’s credibility. In this regard, she stated:
“50. In my judgment, Ms Rooney was an honest and reliable witness. She sought to answer the questions she was asked without any evasion, and without conveying any sense that she was giving pre-prepared answers. Her evidence was consistent with the contemporaneous evidence and with the evidence given by her witnesses. When she was challenged, for example on whether there were followers of the Private Instagram Account who were not trusted friends, her evidence was clear and compelling.”
Rebekah Vardy’s case was hindered, in large part, by two issues:
- The conspicuous absence of Ms Watts, who Rebekah Vardy alleged had access to her Instagram account; and
- The acceptance by Rebekah Vardy that she had intended to leak the information about Danny Drinkwater’s drunk driving arrest.
On the first point, the Judge stated:
“…However, I am compelled to the conclusion that the primary reason Ms Watt was so very reluctant to give evidence, and has suffered adversely from the pressure to do so, was that she knew that to a large extent the evidence in her statements was untrue.
- In my view, the claimant’s decision not to seek to call Ms Watt, against her will, was motivated, to a substantial degree, by concern for her friend’s welfare. But in the circumstances, I also draw the inference that Ms Vardy chose not to call Ms Watt because she knew that when tested in cross-examination her evidence would be shown to be untrue, and that it would have been highly likely to have undermined the claimant’s case that she had no involvement in disclosing information from the Private Instagram Account.”
On the second point, the Judge stated:
“Ms Vardy acknowledged that she intended to leak to The Sun information that Mr Drinkwater had been arrested…This exchange does not concern information about Ms Rooney or from her Private Instagram Account. Nonetheless, it is evidence of Ms Vardy’s willingness to provide information to the press about others within her circle which they would undoubtedly have preferred not to be disclosed. And it illuminates the way in which Ms Vardy and Ms Watt worked collaboratively.”
In finding, for Coleen Rooney and against Rebekah Vardy, Mrs Justice Steyn stated:
“In my judgment, the conclusions that I have reached as to the extent to which the claimant engaged in disclosing to The Sun information to which she only had access as a permitted follower of an Instagram account which she knew, and Ms Rooney repeatedly asserted, was private, suffice to show that the single meaning…is substantially true. The information disclosed was not deeply confidential, and it can fairly be described as trivial, but it does not need to be confidential or important to meet the sting of the libel. It was information derived from private posts that Ms Rooney did not want made public. The Pyjamas Post, for example, was a photograph that Ms Rooney may well have been content to share publicly at a different point in time, but the timing of its disclosure revealed very personal information that she had chosen not to make public. I recognise, of course, that it can be said that the Gender Selection and Flooded Basement Posts were fabricated stories that Ms Rooney was keen to see published precisely because she wanted to catch the person responsible for leaking her information. This does not detract from the conclusion that the essential sting of the libel has been shown to be true.”
In dismissing the public interest defence, the Judge stated:
“In circumstances where the major focus of the trial was on the truth defence, and given my finding in relation to that defence is dispositive of the case, I will express my decision in respect of the public interest defence very briefly. Although Ms Rooney’s interest was essentially personal, on balance, I accept that the Reveal Post was on a matter of public interest, namely the undesirable practice of information (in the nature of mere gossip) about celebrities’ private lives being disclosed to the press by trusted individuals. I also accept that Ms Rooney believed, having given several warnings on her Private Instagram Account, as well as a public warning, that it was in the public interest to publish the Reveal Post…However, I do not accept that the belief was reasonable in all the circumstances. In particular, it was not reasonable to believe that it was in the public interest to publish the Reveal Post without taking any steps to put the allegation to Ms Vardy and give her an opportunity to respond. It is no answer to that point that Ms Rooney anticipated that Ms Vardy would deny the allegation.”
This judgment demonstrates in a dramatic fashion the effect a Judge’s view on the credibility of witnesses can have on the outcome of a defamation case. The next step is for the Court to determine the costs of the proceedings.
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