‘Wagatha Christie’ trial: Judge finds no defamation

LONDON — What started as an Instagram spat between the husbands of two British soccer stars has blossomed into a defamation trial that has provided some welcome distraction for a bewildered nation.

The High Court ended a long-running legal feud on Friday, ruling against plaintiff Rebekah Vardy, saying her former friend Coleen Rooney had not defamed her.

In her judgment, Judge Karen Steyn ruled that the damage to Mrs Vardy’s reputation did not amount to what she described as the “sting of defamation”. For that reason, he said in a written decision released Friday that “the case is dismissed.”

The court also punished Ms. Vardy, who presented Ms. The lawsuit against Rooney in June 2020 said Ms Vardy had regularly leaked information about her former friend to the press, adding that “a significant part of her evidence was not credible.”

“There were many instances where the plaintiff’s evidence was clearly inconsistent with contemporaneous documentary evidence, unavoidable or implausible,” wrote Ms. Steyn in judgment.

With its combination of low stakes and high melodrama, Ms. Vardy and Ms. Rooney’s argument did not reach the trial of the century. But the case received months of overheated tabloid coverage as Britain navigated a stubborn pandemic and a struggling economy while its prime minister was on the ropes.

The opponents in the case were Mrs Vardy, wife of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, and Mrs Rooney, married to former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney. The women are part of a group known as WAGs, a common, if sexist, tabloid acronym for the “wives and girlfriends” of professional athletes, particularly Premier League footballers.

In 2019, Ms Rooney suspected that a follower of her private Instagram account had sold information about her gleaned from her posts to The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch-owned London tabloid known for its scathing celebrity coverage. To track down the suspected leaker, Ms Rooney set a trap: she made her Instagram stories visible only to Ms Vardy and used the account to spread false information about herself. He then waited to see if it would make it to the press.

At the end of her months-long sting operation, Mrs Rooney claimed Mrs Vardy was the culprit. He made the allegation in a social media statement in the fall of 2019 that was widely shared. Because of her search tactics, Mrs. Rooney became known as Wagatha Christie, a combination of WAG and 20th century mystery writer Agatha Christie.

Ms Vardy was quick to deny she was the leaker. He then said he had hired forensic computer experts to determine if anyone had access to his Instagram account. After mediation failed, Ms Vardy brought a defamation action against Ms Rooney in the High Court, which handles high-profile civil cases in Britain.

This May, the matter went to court. The proceedings, which were officially called Vardy v. Rooney, became known as the Wagatha Christie trial. The term was so common that it appeared right next to “War in Ukraine” on the Sky News crawl.

Tabloid photographers and cable news correspondents gathered on the steps of London’s Royal Courts of Justice for the nine-day event, which turned out to be as much fashion show as whodunit.

Ms Vardy, 40, arrived in a range of pieces including a butter yellow tweed suit by Alessandra Rich and an Alexander McQueen blazer. Ms. Rooney, 36, wore a medical boot on her left foot, a clumsy plastic device that she teamed with a Chanel loafer, a Gucci loafer and a Gucci mule. He had suffered a broken bone in a fall in his house.

Ms Vardy testified for three days. “I didn’t give any information to the newspaper,” he said when questioned at the beginning of his testimony. “I’ve been called a leak and it’s not nice.”

The trial had plenty of TV-worthy plot twists. The court heard that laptops went missing and that WhatsApp messages between Ms Vardy and her agent Caroline Watt – which apparently disparaged Ms Rooney – had mysteriously disappeared. Ms Vardy’s lawyer added that Ms Watt had “unfortunately” dropped an iPhone containing WhatsApp messages in the North Sea. Mrs Rooney’s lawyer, David Sherborne, responded that the mishap appeared to have ended in a cover-up of evidence.

“The story is really suspicious, it’s not meant to be,” he said.

Ms Vardy told the court she could “neither confirm nor deny” exactly what happened to her missing digital data. The next moment he began his answer with the phrase “if I’m being honest”, causing Ms Rooney’s barrister to gasp: “I hope you’re being honest because you’re in the witness box.”

The case attracted so much media attention because WAGs — like the players on the United States’ “Real Housewives” franchise — loom large in the British cultural imagination. They are constantly photographed. They star in reality shows and have their own fast fashion lines and false eyelash business. Inspired by their shopping habits, feuds and love lives, the TV series Footballer’s Wives was a hit in the early 2000s.

The WAGs had their breakthrough moment in 2006 when a group of them enlivened the quiet resort town of Baden-Baden during that year’s World Cup, which took place in stadiums across Germany. The ringleader was Victoria Beckham, who before her marriage to the great midfielder David Beckham had become famous as Posh Spice in the Spice Girls. Also on the trip: Coleen McLoughlin, 20, who met and later married Mr Rooney, Mr Beckham’s teammate.

The tabloids ate it up. Reports in Baden-Baden told of WAGs singing ‘We Are the Champions’ from hotel balconies, dancing on tabletops and guzzling champagne, vodka and Red Bull well into the night. During the day, the women went on epic shopping sprees and sunbathed as the paparazzi scurried away.

When England lost to Portugal in the quarter-finals, some sports pundits unfairly blamed the loss on the WAGs. Predictably, the tabloids that had made them celebrities tried to rip them off. “The Empty World of the WAGs” was the headline of The Daily Mail’s finger-wagging.

Years later, Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy played together for England, adding to the delicious awkwardness of the recent proceedings.

The trial fit well with a culture that sometimes revels in images of how silly it can be — see also the hit TV show Love Island. It also touched on betrayal and lies, a defining issue in Britain as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was fined for breaching lockdown rules and then announced he would resign after being ousted by his party over other frauds.

The trial also introduced the complexities of the British class system. Online pranksters following the case learned of Oxford-educated lawyers reading aloud text messages filled with profanity from the women, who are often considered low-key or “chatty”, to borrow a word Ms Vardy used to refer to Mr Cousin. Rooney’s.

Unlike this year’s other high-profile celebrity court battle, Depp v. Heard did not broadcast those proceedings live, which added to the appeal. Old-school courtroom sketches made the parties look like a potato, the moon and, according to one commentator, “Norman Bates’s mother”.

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