The long-awaited judgment in the Johnny Depp libel claim was handed down yesterday morning. Bringing this case was always a high-risk strategy for the actor and one which has now backfired spectacularly as he has lost his claim against News Group Newspapers and Dan Wootton. Head of Media Disputes Emily Cox speaks to the press about what this means for Mr Depp going forward.
Mr Depp’s claim was in relation to an article published by The Sun, which originally bore the headline “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”.
The article contained allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard and implied that he was unfit to work in Hollywood. Mr Depp asserted that the publication was false and caused serious harm to his reputation. Unusually, the parties did not disagree on the meaning of the article, which was that he:
”… was guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her fearing for her life, for which the Claimant was constrained to pay no less than £5 million to compensate her, and which resulted in him being subjected to a continuing court restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry”.
Over three weeks in July, the court heard evidence from Mr Depp, Ms Heard and a number of other witnesses. Much of the evidence was unflattering to Mr Depp and Ms Heard alike.
The court found that while the meaning of The Sun article was defamatory, NGN could rely on the truth defence in section 2 of the Defamation Act 2013. This was on the basis that the allegations made were “substantially true” and there was sufficient evidence for The Sun to call him a “wife beater”. Mr Justice Nicol examined 14 incidents of alleged assault in forensic detail and found that 12 of these incidents were proved to the civil standard. The judge went further, accepting the notion that there was a “monster side” to Mr Depp, that he had assaulted Heard and that he had put her “in fear of her life”.
The judge said that he did not accept the characterisation of Ms Heard as a “gold-digger”, and accepted that the allegations had had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist.
Although this result is not a criminal determination of guilt, it is difficult to see how Mr Depp will ever be able to shake off the “wife beater” label, personally and professionally. Add to that the evidence at trial, which painted an unedifying picture of substance abuse that the public and Hollywood film producers will long remember. Mr Depp is also now on the hook for the defendants’ no doubt significant legal fees, which will not be welcome especially if, as he says, his professional and financial prospects have been significantly affected by the allegations.
A libel trial was always a risky way for Mr Depp to try to clear his name given the court necessarily had to put the allegations about his private life under the microscope for all to see. Indeed, allegations that were several years old were reproduced on the front page of every newspaper and all over social media.
Unfortunately for the actor, his legal battles are not over. Mr Depp has brought libel proceedings against Ms Heard in the US in relation to an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post. The impact of this judgment on those proceedings should not be understated. The court in Virginia will likely consider this judgment persuasive in relation to its findings of fact. And, if Depp could not secure a win in ‘claimant-friendly’ England, it will be an uphill battle to convince a jury in the US.