UK libel law emerges with the least dignity in Rooney and Vardy’s ‘Scousetrap’

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A new show which has both taken far too long to open and should never have seen the light of day has taken the West End by storm this week. Nicknamed the Wagatha Christie Trial or Scousetrap, the vanity case of Rebekah Vardy vs Coleen Rooney is estimated to cost about £2mn and is surge-powering the social media platforms which spawned it.

Vardy is suing Rooney over a social media post revealing Rooney laid an Instagram trap to expose a false friend who was leaking details from her private account to The Sun newspaper. Having narrowed the suspects to one, Rooney baited her Instagram posts with several fake facts, only to read them in the paper. She then posted her now-iconic reveal — “It’s . . . Rebekah Vardy’s Account”. Vardy, shamed, launched libel action to defend her good name.

Three years later at the High Court, two demurely dressed footballers’ wives — and it pains me to describe grown women in this way but the alternatives are Influencer, Reality TV star or Tabloid Staple — are listening to insults culled from WhatsApp exchanges and testifying on the unsavoury business of selling secrets to tabloids.

During three days of evidence last week, Vardy’s exploits in disseminating gossip to the tabloids have been mercilessly detailed. (She is suing Rooney, remember, so calibrate your sympathies accordingly.) For Rooney, David Sherborne QC, veteran of the Leveson inquiry, has unearthed such WhatsApp gems as “[arguing with Coleen] would be like arguing with a pigeon. You can tell it that you are right and it is wrong, but it’s still going to s*** in your hair” and, crucially, “And it wasn’t someone she trusted. It was me”. The latter refers to a leaked story about Rooney from Vardy’s agent, friend and alleged accomplice, Caroline Watt. Watt is apparently too unwell to appear and given the way she is being pilloried, that is unsurprising.

Wayne and Coleen Rooney, with David Sherborne QC, leave the High Court in London © Justin Ng/Avalon

And yet Vardy may win. Her lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson QC — who after a long career specialising in media law was recently named in parliament as a vital enabler of oligarchal privacy — may well be working this case as an act of penance but he won a key ruling early on. A judge stipulated that Rooney’s defence must establish that Vardy was herself involved. Vardy has already conceded it might have been Watt. The case will now turn on whether that’s enough.

The result hardly matters. Rooney looked pretty vindicated this week as Vardy sobbed her way through her testimony. The fees will pay for many a Tuscan break. The Sun will continue to publish specious gossip based on a single anonymous source with few consequences — note that no one is suing the newspaper which paid for, published and distributed these made-up stories.

Amazingly, emerging with least dignity from all this is the UK’s libel law, well established as the nation’s most lucrative high-end tourist attraction. Originally devised and modified through precedent to tackle print publications running false stories about high net worth individuals, companies and others, it is now being twisted out of shape to reckon with social media slights by individuals with huge followings.

If we are going to allow very rich people to sue each other in our courts for PR purposes, then we need better rules: allegations published on social media must include a right of reply and a flag that this post is a matter of legal dispute. There is a more practical option though. While rape cases go unprosecuted, and with an estimated 41,000 backlog of court cases, this one might have been better settled with the honourable justice Lorraine Kelly presiding.

Until libel reform is seriously investigated, everyone is locked in a very expensive duel and on current evidence the pistols are pointed at their own feet.

The case, as they say, continues.

janine.gibson@ft.com

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