Wagatha Christie: Six takeaways from the Vardy and Rooney trial
After seven days of bruising evidence, what will the impact of the so-called Wagatha Christie case be?
Perhaps it ought to stop other celebrities facing off in the same way. Or, after the multiple photo ops, outfit changes and acres of coverage, perhaps others will think the “all publicity is good publicity” adage still wins out.
And no doubt, whatever the outcome, each side will spin it their way.
With no major legal lessons to draw from the case, other than a sense that Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy should never have reached the High Court, here are six takeaways from the trial.
1. A peek behind the curtain on tabloid journalism
This case shone a spotlight on the relationship between some celebrities and the tabloids. While Mrs Vardy said she didn’t leak the fake stories from Mrs Rooney’s Instagram, she has admitted to a cordial relationship with the press – such as setting up paparazzi photos as she left her hotel at Euro 2016.
The Sun’s executive editor of showbiz, Simon Boyle, told me on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show that, in general, the relationship between the press and the celebrities they write about “definitely goes both ways”.
“A lot of these people [celebrities] I’ve come to know really quite well, many of them you become friendly with, you’re in fairly regular contact, and I guarantee the phone rings more frequently asking if you [the journalist] can write something than it does the other way around. There are a lot of people seeking attention and publicity.”
The tabloids created the Wags, particularly around the 2006 World Cup, putting the footballers on the back pages and their wives and girlfriends on the front. As the clamour for information grew, they became celebrities in their own right.
The wife of a former England and Premier League player, who asked to remain anonymous, sums it up: “Wags get a tough time. I can’t tell you the number of times people come up and push me aside to get to my husband.
“So I can see that Rebekah Vardy was flattered into the relationship she had with the press. She is suddenly relevant, she is the focus, not Jamie Vardy.
“But actually, by trying to make a name for herself and a career, she is still in the trap of forgetting she is only interesting and has this career because her husband plays football. So she is being used for her access, rather than anything she actually is.”
2. We are fascinated (against our better judgement)
It may be unedifying, but the column inches, podcasts, TV and radio reports and repeated trending of the Wagatha hashtag on social media show (some) people are really invested in the story.
Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long compares the case to Dynasty, the hit American soap opera of the 1980s. “This is Alexis versus Krystle for our time,” she says. “It’s who’s going to push who into the ornamental fountain first. It’s completely compelling because you wonder how far it’s going to go.”
The answer turned out to be all the way to court – and it probably won’t end there.
Nobody is downplaying the trauma and abuse Mrs Vardy and her family suffered at the hands of online trolls after Mrs Rooney carried out her sting operation, while Wayne Rooney told the court the fallout had been “traumatic” for his wife too.
But once Mrs Rooney had accused Mrs Vardy of betrayal, and the Wagatha Christie term was born, for many others, this was always going to verge on pure entertainment.
3. Journalists never reveal their sources
The Sun successfully fought off a demand from Mrs Rooney’s side to reveal the sources of its stories about her. Remember, it was The Sun that printed the fake stories Mrs Rooney says she deliberately planted in an effort to find the leaker.
Boyle, whose byline appeared on the story of the Rooneys’ basement flooding, which turned out to be untrue, says: “We went to extraordinary lengths and extraordinary expense in the High Court after being pushed by both sides to come to court and hand over some documents and take the witness stand.
“That is simply not something we would ever do, and on a wider basis, it would have set a dreadful precedent for journalism across the board.”
4. Nobody wins in a case like this
This case is clearly about reputation rather than money – but it’s backfired. Clare Duffy, a media law and human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, says: “Press coverage of the evidence, from the WhatsApp messages to the witness box, will be causing both women reputational damage. Even if Vardy wins, it is doubtful that a libel judgement will fully vindicate her reputation.”
There is a difference between who wins in court, and who wins in the court of public opinion. The evidence that has been put into the public domain during the trial has arguably harmed Mrs Vardy’s reputation more than Mrs Rooney’s.
The wife of the former England player told me: “It’s just a car crash. We are watching Becky Vardy destroy herself, seeking to save a reputation but unwittingly putting it on the path to destroying it.
“She has started something she can’t stop, even if she wants to. Everyone could see this could only end badly for the Vardy family. Except the Vardy family.”
5. The perils of social media
That use of social media by both women has proved very costly.
In her evidence, Mrs Rooney said she’d had no idea the original post in 2019, unmasking “Rebekah Vardy’s account”, would blow up the way it did. That was naivety at best.
Long says: “This is the consequence of not using social media wisely. Anybody who has been watching social media knows it does get this big. What you do on social media is part of real life.”
London’s High Court has been hearing libel cases resulting from posts on social media for more than a decade. In 2012, the New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns successfully sued the former chairman of the Indian Premier League over allegations made on Twitter of match fixing, which he always denied.
Subsequent cases have included the food writer Jack Monroe’s successful libel claim against the right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins, and Lord McAlpine’s against Sally Bercow after she linked him in a tweet with a TV report about child sexual abuse which wrongly implicated him.
They all garnered media attention. But nothing like what we have seen over the past two weeks.
6. Only very rich people can afford to go to court
The sums involved in defamation cases are eye-watering, easily running into the millions. As Duffy says: “Ultimately, the trial is only possible due to the parties’ deep pockets… High Court libel litigation is, as the saying goes, available to all – like the Ritz.”
And while both these women can afford much more than afternoon tea at the Ritz, far too often what plays out in the libel courts is seriously imbalanced. Rich claimants force underfunded parties to back down rather than fight. They simply cannot afford to go to court to face opposing parties who can vastly outspend them.
That hasn’t been a problem for Wagatha Christie (although Mrs Rooney told the court she had tried to reach out many times to bring the case to an end before trial). Instead, the expensive lawyers acting for Mrs Rooney and Mrs Vardy found complex angles to argue over in six different hearings before the trial even opened.
The women have paid for and got the full gamut of English justice. Some have put the final costs of the case at up to £4m. Other potential litigants, with perhaps more important arguments to test in court, simply wouldn’t have been able to afford to get there.
The two parties in the Wagatha Christie case will have to wait weeks or months to find out the outcome, though, after the judgement was reserved at the end of the trial on Thursday.