13:10, November 02 54 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-02 13:10:06
Failure of Johnny Depp's libel case a rarity in a land that favours claimants

Johnny Depp’s high-profile and ultimately disastrous libel case against the Sun is a rarity in an era where financially-struggling news outlets are less willing to fight risky legal cases, and where libel law incentivises publishers to settle before cases reach court.

The actor’s decision to sue the Sun’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, over its claim that he was a “wife beater”, led to the very public airing of dirty laundry in a London courtroom and a conclusion that the newspaper’s accusation was based in fact.

But the wider legal and media implications of the case could be more to do with the fact that attempts by Depp to undermine the account of his ex-wife Amber Heard, the Sun’s key witness, failed to pass muster with the judge.

Mark Stephens, a media specialist at the law firm Howard Kennedy, welcomed the fact that attempts to undermine Heard’s account by portraying her as a hoaxer or a gold digger had failed: “If those gendered tropes had been successful, they would have been replicated. The fact they have been picked apart forensically, in those circumstances, is complete vindication.”

He said it was one of a series of recent cases which show courts increasingly understand the nuances of domestic abuse: “We’ve seen a series of cases where men have been suing women to silence them over abuse. I hope this emboldens victims and news organisations to speak up to cover this abuse.”

At other Fleet Street titles there appeared to be admiration that News Group Newspapers had fought the case to the end, given the legal bills for both sides will run into the millions. An early settlement could have substantially reduced the financial risk but would have been taken as a vindication of Depp. News Group Newspapers declined to comment on whether they had had an opportunity to settle the case before trial.

Media law trainer David Banks said the Sun had taken on a substantial risk by fighting their case, especially since they were required to prove the fundamental claim that Depp was a wife beater: “Truth has always been a difficult defence – and if you mount it and lose, the consequences are dreadful.”

One key factor is that Heard was willing to subject herself to cross-examination in a London courtroom during a pandemic, even though this meant requiring security to arrive at court and facing a barrage of verbal and online abuse.

“It could quite easily have gone another way if you had gone to court with a witness that wasn’t as prepared to go into the witness box and take that kind of punishment,” said Banks. “In lots of circumstances like this a lot of titles like this would still be trying to settle it. The Sun are happy today but I imagine they are delighted and relieved.”

Although the UK still has a reputation as a country that favours libel claimants over publishers, changes to libel laws approved by parliament in 2013 have changed the environment. Potential damages have been reduced and there are increased incentives to settle libel cases before they reach court – which is why the Depp case was such as a rarity.

Stephens said the long term impact could be a public debate on how Heard was treated in court: “The precedent is really around how we cross-examine victims of abuse – and secondly how we prevent witnesses at court cases being abused and attacked on their way into court.”

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