Rebekah Vardy v Coleen Rooney: WAGs war and the law – Part 5: “Judgment Day”
In this part 5 of our series on the legal battle between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney, we discuss the Judgment that was handed down on 29 July 2022.
The subject matter of this claim has been well publicised, but to recap, Mrs Vardy brought a claim for libel against Mrs Rooney in respect of a post published on 9 October 2019 on her public social media accounts (“the Reveal Post”):
The questions for the court to determine were whether Mrs Rooney had established a defence to the claim and, if not, the appropriate quantum of damages. Mrs Rooney relied on two statutory defences: the defence of truth and the defence of publication on a matter of public interest.
Under Section 2 of the Defamation Act 2013, it is a defence to a claim for defamation to show that the imputation conveyed by the Reveal Post was “substantially true”. To rely on this defence, Mrs Rooney would have to establish the “essential” or “substantial” truth of the sting of the libel (see Chase v News Group Newspapers Ltd).
Under Section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013, it is a defence to a claim for defamation to show that the Reveal Post (a) was, or formed part of, a statement on a matter of public interest and (b) Mrs Rooney reasonably believed that publishing the Reveal Post was in the public interest.
Mrs Vardy as a witness
Mrs Justice Steyn found that it was necessary to treat Mrs Vardy’s evidence with “extreme caution”. Mrs Justice Steyn said that some of the evidence given by Mrs Vardy was “wholly implausible” and that there were “many occasions when her evidence was manifestly inconsistent with the contemporaneous documentary evidence”. One of these occasions was in relation to the photographs that were taken of Mrs Vardy and 8 other WAGs out at a restaurant during the FIFA World Cup 2018. It was alleged that Mrs Vardy secretly arranged for paparazzi to take a photograph of the 9 of them, which was then sold to The Sun and published in an article with the headline “World Cup 2018: England Wags including Rebekah Vardy look glamorous as they head out for dinner”.
Mrs Vardy denied that she had orchestrated the photograph of her and the 8 other WAGs outside of the restaurant, even saying that the suggestion that they go outside was made by another one of the players’ partners, and said that the only arrangement she had made was for the paparazzi to take a picture of her leaving her hotel. However, Mrs Justice Steyn considered that the contemporaneous messages provided “a far more reliable account than that given by Mrs Vardy”.
Mrs Justice Steyn found that it was highly likely that Mrs Vardy had made the other WAGs go outside for a picture (as she had stated that she had done so in her messages to Ms Watt). But Mrs Vardy’s involvement did not end there. Mrs Justice Steyn noted that “it is evident that once other members of the group noticed that they had been photographed, they asked Mrs Vardy to “put it up” (i.e. to publish on a public platform a photograph of the group taken on her phone) in order to undermine that paparazzo’s ability to sell his photographs”. But Mrs Vardy stalled sufficiently to enable the photographs to be sold, with Ms Watt’s assistance in thinking of plausible excuses for not posting her photograph immediately. Whilst orchestrating the photograph (and disclosing information about the WAGs movements for that purpose) did not involve disclosing information about Mrs Rooney, Mrs Justice Steyn said that it was relevant in assessing Mrs Vardy’s credibility.
Mrs Rooney as a witness
In contrast, Mrs Justice Steyn found that Mrs Rooney was “an honest and reliable witness” who gave “clear and compelling” evidence. It was noted that Mrs Rooney “sought to answer the questions she was asked without any evasion” and that her evidence was “consistent with the contemporaneous evidence and with the evidence given by her witnesses”.
Gaps in the documentary evidence
Part 2 of our series discussed the issues regarding disclosure in this case and the circumstances in which some of Mrs Vardy’s disclosure was not available.
All media files from Mrs Vardy’s WhatsApp communications with Ms Watt were missing from Mrs Vardy’s disclosure. Mrs Vardy claimed that these files were lost due to a technical problem during the transfer of data to her solicitors. Mrs Justice Steyn found that it was likely that Mrs Vardy had “deliberately deleted her WhatsApp chat with Ms Watt” and that whilst Mrs Vardy had disclosed messages that were detrimental to her case, she was not persuaded that “the imperfection of the effort to remove incriminating evidence shows that there was no such attempt, particularly given that Mrs Vardy is unlikely to have anticipated in October 2019 that evidence about, for example, Mr Drinkwater, would have to be disclosed”.
There was a CCMC hearing on 4 August 2021, at which an order was made by the court requiring Ms Watt’s phone to be inspected. However, Ms Watt claimed that she had accidentally dropped her phone in the sea whilst on a boat trip in August 2021. Mrs Justice Steyn commented that “the timing is striking. In my judgment, even taking this evidence on its own, the likelihood that the loss Ms Watt describes was accidental is slim”.
The court may draw an adverse inference in circumstances where a “wrongdoer” has “parted with relevant evidence” (see Dudley v Phillips  EWHC 930 QB). In the absence of significant evidence from Mrs Vardy, Mrs Justice Steyn considered it proper to draw such adverse inferences. For example, in relation to the gender selection story, Mrs Justice Steyn said “I have found that Mrs Vardy and Ms Watt have deliberately deleted or destroyed evidence. Given that the Reveal Post expressly referred to this post, I draw the inference that evidence of the disclosure to The Sun of the Gender Selection Post is likely to have been deleted”.
This Judgment has again demonstrated the rigorous approach that the court will take in relation to disclosure, and the consequences that will be faced if a party fails to comply with their disclosure obligations. For more information on complying with disclosure obligations, click here.
In Mrs Justice Steyn’s view, whilst it was likely that it was Ms Watt who undertook the direct act of passing information to journalists, the evidence clearly showed that Mrs Vardy “knew of and condoned this behaviour” and actively engaged in it by directing Ms Watt to Mrs Rooney’s private Instagram account, drawing attention to potential items of interest, and answering additional queries raised by the press via Ms Watt. The substantial truth defence was therefore successful, and the claim was dismissed.
Mrs Justice Steyn accepted that the Reveal Post was on a matter of public interest i.e. “the undesirable practice of information (in the nature of mere gossip) about celebrities’ private lives being disclosed to the press by trusted individuals”, and that Mrs Rooney believed that it was in the public interest to publish the Reveal Post. However, it was not accepted that this belief was reasonable (in particular, without Mrs Rooney taking any steps to put the allegation to Mrs Vardy and give her an opportunity to respond), and therefore the public interest defence failed.
Throughout the trial, damning evidence emerged painting Mrs Vardy as a habitual leaker of stories, with Mrs Justice Steyn commenting that such evidence demonstrated Mrs Vardy’s “willingness to provide information to the press about others within her circle which they would undoubtedly have preferred not to be disclosed”. This, along with the comments made in relation to Mrs Vardy’s reliability as a witness and deletion of evidence, has resulted in a self-inflicted character assassination.
The decision to pursue a claim is not one that should be taken lightly, and, in Mrs Vardy’s case, it seems to have caused more damage to her reputation. If you are considering bringing a libel claim, or are facing a claim being made against you, our expert defamation lawyers are happy to discuss this with you: please call us on 020 7632 4300 or make an enquiry.