Reality TV star Rebekah Vardy lost her claim against TV personality Coleen Rooney at London’s High Court on Friday in a case that highlights how social media has become a new battleground for defamation lawsuits.
The judge ruled in favor of Rooney, ending the dramatic case – dubbed “Wagatha Christie” – with the focus on the two footballers’ wives making global headlines and stories of tabloid intrigue.
The high-profile claim was brought by Vardy, who is married to Leicester City player Jamie Vardy, against Rooney, the wife of Wayne Rooney, a former Manchester United and England captain.
Vardy had sought to clear her name after Rooney ran a “sting operation” three years ago to find the source of leaks from her private Instagram account. In October 2019, Rooney accused Vardy of leaking stories about her private life to The Sun newspaper.
In her ruling, Mrs Justice Steyn found that, on a balance of probabilities, Vardy had leaked the Rooney story to the press.
The case lasted seven days and generated a media circus, with lawyers poring over pages of WhatsApp exchanges and debating the meaning of the emojis used in them.
It has highlighted social media as the new frontier of defamation law where everyone is a publisher, according to legal experts.
“Twitter tips are increasingly becoming our litigation landscape,” said Matthew Dando, an attorney and specialist in media law at Wiggin. “The usual laws apply [online] from a libel perspective.”
“But you get accusations that are much more shot from the hip . . . and things like emojis complicate meanings,” he added.
WhatsApp messages exchanged by Rooney and Vardy with emojis were examined as evidence during the hearing, prompting the judge to consider the meaning of the pictograms commonly used in texts.
Such considerations have become more relevant as celebrities increasingly use platforms such as Instagram to set their own news agendas, bypassing traditional media.
In 2019, Rooney set up an elaborate trap on Instagram by posting a series of fake stories and then limiting the number of followers who could see them, while waiting to see if the stories appeared in the press, until only Vardy was left as a suspect.
The case is estimated to have cost millions of pounds in legal fees and has highlighted the use of London’s courts and England’s libel laws by the rich and powerful to settle their personal battles.
The judge said that Vardy, along with her agent Caroline Watt, was “a party to the disclosure to The Sun” of false stories, such as one about Rooney traveling to Mexico to undergo a “sex selection” procedure to have a baby girl, and a piece about her basement flood.
Justice Steyn said it was “likely” that Watt “undertook the direct act” of sending stories to the press, but that Vardy “knew and condoned” the behaviour. She added that it was likely Watt “deliberately dropped his phone in the sea” to avoid handing over messages requested by the court.
Defamation lawsuits bring high fees for London law firms. Legal bills for Rooney and Vardy are likely to exceed £1 million. Vardy may now be forced to pay Rooney’s costs, due to the “loser pays” rule in English civil litigation. The sum will be determined at a later hearing.
Rooney said in a statement that she was “delighted” that the ruling had gone in her favor but that she “never believed” that the case should have gone to court “at such expense in times of difficulty for so many people when the money could would have been far better spent helping others”.