The Sun proves ‘truth’ in Johnny Depp libel trial

Judgment has been handed down in Depp II v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2020] EWHC 2911 (QB), perhaps better known as the Johnny Depp libel trial.

Johnny Depp brought a claim for libel against the Sun newspaper, after it published a headline reading ‘GONE POTTY: How Can J K Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?’ The headline was later amended to reference an “assault claim.” The article referenced the allegations made about Depp being violent to his partner Amber Heard.

Those allegations might have been so much chip wrapping had Depp not pursued a claim through the courts. To succeed in a libel claim a claimant must show that the words complained of, in their ‘ordinary meaning,’ had caused serious harm to their reputation. If so, the defendant is guilty of libel unless they have a defence.

One of those defences is to show that what was said was true. To succeed in this defence there is no need to show that each and every allegation is true – just that they are “substantially true.” It is a risky defence to run, because to run it and lose risks increased damages, to reflect the harm and distress done by airing the issues through a trial.

The ‘ordinary meaning’ of the Sun’s article was said to be that

“The Claimant 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 restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry.”

Needless to say, if untrue, such an accusation would indeed be libellous.

The trial therefore meant a hearing of all of the evidence about abuse. The allegations were for the defence – the Sun – to prove, not for Depp to disprove, but on the civil standard of proof (“the balance of probabilities”) and not the criminal standard (“beyond reasonable doubt”). The judge was therefore concerned with whether, having heard the evidence, it was more likely than not that Depp was guilty of serious domestic violence against Amber Heard.

The examination of the allegations is conducted in careful detail in the judgment. The judge concluded that of the fourteen separate incidents alleged, twelve were proved, and so the defence of truth was successful. There had been no libel and Depp’s claim failed.

Not only did his claim fail, but the evidence does not show him in a particularly good light: ‘joking’ about being violent to women in prostitution, admitting violence to Ms Heard in messages, blaming his behaviour on a persona he called the Monster, and a chronic drink and drugs problem – all evidence which would not otherwise have been public.

It remains to be seen as to what effect, if any, this will have on Depp’s career. Certainly his fan base are firmly of the view that the judge is wrong, some in more base terms than others. What is certain is that Ms Heard’s career has already been badly affected: she has been the subject of online abuse, petitions to have her removed from her work, characterised in court as a gold digger, and publicly and in the glare of publicity described by Depp as an “overused flappy fish market” and “waste of a cum guzzler” in a rant in which he promised her “total global humiliation.”

The sad fact is that vindication in the courts cannot retrospectively protect Ms Heard from that humiliation already visited upon her. This is a persistent problem for women who report abuse by powerful men.

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