Throughout the summer Johnny Depp’s defamation claim for libel against News Group Newspapers Ltd (The Sun) has been hitting the headlines. Following the English case which commenced trial on 7 July 2020 has possibly been a welcome (but sad, given it involves allegations of domestic violence) change for many, as the news is so heavily dominated with the lasted on coronavirus these days. Well, the case has now come to close with judgement being given on 2 November 2020.
The first thing to note is that defamatory statements are either considered to be libel or slander. Libel is a statement that is made in permanent form. Such as, written/printed words, online material, movies, radio broadcasts, or theatre. Slander is committed in a temporary form, such as gestures or spoken words.
Depp brought a libel claim against News Group Newspapers and The Sun’s executive editor, Dan Wotton, over an article published on the website on 27 April 2018 with the headline, ‘GONE POTTY How Can J K Rowling be ‘’genuinely happy’’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?’. The Headline was amended the next day (28 April 2018) to include, ‘after assault claim?’ at the end of the original title. The hard copy of the The Sun which included an article under the amended title was released the same day.
The News Groups primary witness was Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard, who made the allegations of domestic violence. Depp claimed the article was defamatory as it was false and fictitious and had caused his reputation ‘serious harm’ under the Defamation Act 2013. The News Group used the defence of truth under Section 2 Defamation Act 2013, claiming it had evidence of domestic violence, with Heard being their key witness.
Section 2(1) of the Defamation Act states that, ‘it is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained of is substantially true.’ So, minor inaccuracies will not prevent this defence applying if it is substantially true. In other words, every word does not literally need to be true if it is broadly accurate. If a defendant proves the statement is ‘substantially true’, it will apply no matter how damaging it is to the claimants’ reputation.
The News Group used 14 incidents of alleged assaults in order to prove their defence. I will not go into detail here as the incidents were often the main focus of the news throughout the summer whilst covering the case, so have been heavily reported.
In judgement Mr Justice Nicol said, ‘I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard’. ‘The exceptions are Incidents 6, 11’. So, it was held that 12 out of the 14 incidents were proved to be ‘substantially true’ to the civil standard.
The civil standard of proof is ‘on the balance of probabilities’ which basically means anything proved over 50% is a win. In contrast the criminal standard is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ which is a much higher standard and rightly so considering people can lose their liberties and freedom in a criminal case.
In conclusion Depp failed in his action for libel. Mr Justice Nicol said, ‘the Defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true’. He also said, ‘it has not been necessary to consider the fairness of the article or the defendants’ ‘malice’ because those are immaterial to the statutory defence of truth.’
Let’s not forget that in March 2019 Depp sued Heard for libel in the court of Fairfax County, Virginia, USA. The litigation for that case is ongoing and the trial is unlikely to take place before January 2021. So, there may be more to come in news, in the future.
Legal fees for a defamation case in the United Kingdom can be so substantial that it could easily be argued that it is a rich persons’ law, especially if it goes to trial.
As a business that has an online presence it is vital that you are careful with what you, or those that work for you post on your website, or social media account. You do not want to post defamatory content and risk being sued for defamation. Not only can the individual be sued, the organisation that operates the website, or social media account can also be sued. As an employer you are vicariously liable (responsible) for your employees’ actions during the course of their employment. Even if you do not get sued due to the obvious cost issues, defamatory content on your website, or social media can create a bad image for your business. A bad image will cost you financially during a time when most need the trade.
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