Libel proceedings in London have laid bare the personal lives of two British celebrities in a legal whodunit for the social media age. And it wasn’t just the tabloids that became obsessed with the feud.
LONDON — A candid window into the glamorous world of English soccer, and an exposé of the machinations of back-stabbing celebrities. A phone lost to the sea, along with the evidence it supposedly contained. And a legal whodunit with powerhouse lawyers dissecting private WhatsApp messages in open court as tears flowed on the witness stand.
These were some of the gossip-fueling facets of a libel case contested by the wives of two famous English soccer players that is expected to draw to a close on Thursday. The proceedings, focused on an Instagram feud between the two women, have riveted Britain over the past week, with establishment news media and tabloids alike breathlessly covering each revelation, and photographers competing for shots of celebrities arriving outside the London courtroom.
The judge in the case will later rule on whether one of the women, Coleen Rooney, defamed the other, Rebekah Vardy, in social media posts that accused Ms. Vardy of leaking Ms. Rooney’s personal information to The Sun newspaper.
Tabloid coverage of the wives and girlfriends of soccer players (widely known in Britain by the acronym WAG) is intense, and both women have leveraged their exposure to build huge social media followings and achieve some fame in their own right as media personalities. Both took the stand during the case, clad in an array of designer clothes (dissected by the media for hidden messaging).
The widespread curiosity in the proceedings should surprise nobody, said Adrian Bingham, a professor of modern British history at the University of Sheffield who has studied media and gender issues. “The essence of a good story remains the same,” he said, noting the “healthy lashings of sex and deceit and money and glory” in the case.
“We don’t know how the plot ends so this is exciting,” he added. “Who did do it? Who is going to be found guilty?”
The public sparring between the two women began in October 2019 after Ms. Rooney disclosed online that a follower on her private Instagram account had been leaking information to a tabloid newspaper. She had a suspicion who the leaker was, she added, explaining that she had engineered a sting operation in which she gradually limited her followers to just one account — Ms. Vardy’s — and then posted false stories to see if they would show up in the news media.
Ms. Rooney said that the stories were indeed picked up, and she revealed the findings of her investigation in an online statement accusing Ms. Vardy of leaking them. Ms. Rooney’s apparent sleuthing skills led to the case becoming known as the “Wagatha Christie” affair — playing off the WAG acronym and the name of the detective novelist Agatha Christie.
When asked in court by Ms. Vardy’s lawyer what she had intended to achieve with her online statement, Ms. Rooney said: “I wasn’t achieving anything; what I wanted was to stop the person who was leaking my private information to The Sun.”
“This was my last resort,” she added.
Ms. Vardy has denied being behind the leaks and said that multiple people had access to her account. As a result of Ms. Rooney’s post, she said, she received verbal abuse from the public while pregnant, including threats against the child she was carrying.
“I have been called a leaker, and it’s not nice,” Ms. Vardy said during the hearing.
In 2020, Ms. Vardy began libel proceedings against Ms. Rooney, and, because the two women were unable to reach a settlement, the case went to trial — an unusual and costly process that will have racked up millions of pounds in legal fees, according to lawyers’ estimates.
With such vast sums at stake and the private lives of the rich and famous on full view in court, the feud quickly entranced large sections of the British public.
Even the more serious news outlets, which would normally ignore such a celebrity spat, have found a way into the story by analyzing the broader implications of widespread social media use, Professor Bingham said.
“There is a legitimacy to talking about this because it’s in a courtroom and it raises genuinely serious issues of privacy,” he noted.
And for the tabloids, the case was a feeding frenzy. Athalie Matthews, a London-based lawyer who specializes in defamation, said the personal details that emerged in court effectively blew “the personal lives of both parties wide open in a way that the press can report on with complete impunity.”
Interest was so high that attendees spilled into an overflow room at the London courtroom. Juicy revelations were blogged live by journalists and summarized by news outlets as diverse as the BBC and The Daily Mail — though by Thursday, journalists waiting outside the courtroom seemed ready for the trial’s end.
Ms. Rooney and her husband, the former England soccer captain Wayne Rooney, had been experiencing marital tensions, it was revealed in one session. WhatsApp messages between Ms. Vardy and her agent, Caroline Watt, disparaged Ms. Rooney and discussed leaking stories about other people in exchange for payment, the court also heard. And a phone potentially containing relevant WhatsApp messages was accidentally dropped by Ms. Watt into the North Sea, Ms. Vardy’s lawyer said — a mishap that Ms. Rooney’s lawyer said appeared to be a case of concealing evidence.
Ms. Vardy acknowledged that Ms. Watt had previously passed information about Ms. Rooney to The Sun newspaper, but Ms. Vardy’s lawyers argued that there was insufficient evidence that Ms. Vardy herself was responsible for any leaks. They have also said that Ms. Watt is ill and therefore not able to provide testimony.
If Ms. Vardy wins the libel case, the damages awarded are likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds, according to legal experts, with Ms. Rooney probably having to pay her rival’s legal fees. If Ms. Rooney wins, Ms. Vardy will be left with the bill for the fees and could face a counter case for infringement of privacy, Ms. Matthews, the defamation lawyer, said.
“The trial is not going to change the image of libel as the preserve of the rich,” Ms. Matthews added, noting that few people had the money to risk on such legal proceedings.
But, Ms. Matthews said, it might cause people to reconsider before posting material that could cause serious harm to someone’s reputation.
Regardless of the outcome, the case has highlighted the tensions inherent between the desire for privacy and the price of fame. “This is what tabloid culture is all about and we’re just seeing a new iteration of this in a social media age,” Professor Bingham said.