Published on 20 April 2022
When Johnny Depp lost his libel case against the Sun newspaper over an article that called him a "wife beater,” it became a watershed case for journalism students.
Now, 18 months on, the Hollywood couple are back in court - suing each other for libel this time. Here University of Sunderland media law expert Carole Watson discusses its importance for journalism students preparing to enter the industry
“It’s not often someone famous for playing Willy Wonka plays a major part of my media law lectures.
“But ever since Johnny Depp lost his high-profile libel battle with the Sun in November 2020, his image (albeit in a suit outside London’s High court rather than in a top hat with cane in a chocolate factory) has featured in my slides on defamation.
“All journalism students need to learn about libel and the defences they have to protect their stories. And the Depp case perfectly illustrates when a media outlet can make a highly-damaging allegation against someone … if they are prepared to fight to prove it’s true.
“In a nutshell, libel is unjustified attacks on someone’s reputation and people can sue newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and websites for damages, often running into thousands of pounds. The legal costs of such a case can run into millions.
“Back in 2020, when Mr Justice Nicol decided the Sun did prove in court Depp is a wifebeater, who’d committed domestic violence against his then wife Amber Heard at least 12 times, his reputation was shredded.
“His legal bill (he had to pay The Sun’s costs too) will have been eye watering. And as a result, he was replaced by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the third film in the "Fantastic Beasts" franchise, a spin-off from the Harry Potter books and films.
“But all that fallout, financially and career-wise, hasn’t stopped Depp forking out even more of his fortune today to fight for reputation in a second headline-making libel battle, this time in a Fairfax County, Virginia, courtroom across the Atlantic.
“This time, Depp is suing Heard herself for libel in a $50 million (£38.4 million) case over a 2018 opinion piece she wrote in the Washington Post about being a survivor of domestic violence.
“Heard never named her Hollywood A-lister ex in the article but, as my media law students know, that doesn’t mean someone can’t sue for libel, if they demonstrate that people thought it referred to him. Leaving out someone’s name doesn’t save you – and can make it even worse.
“The trial is being broadcast live in the US, and has more juicy storylines than a daytime soap opera. We’ve heard evidence from a string of witnesses about their fiery rows, Depp’s drug use and Heard’s temper tantrums.
“Over here, it’s led the news agenda alongside the invasion of Ukraine and the Prime Minister’s “Partygate” fine for covid law-breaking.
“Depp took to the stand two weeks into the six-week trial, calling the allegations “heinous and disturbing” and saying that he has never been violent to a woman in his life and is suing to protect his reputation and to “stand up” for his children.
“Heard, meanwhile, has brought her own libel claim against him, seeking $100 million damages, saying he defamed her by calling her a liar.
“At this rate, I will need to write a whole curriculum based on just these two, as their teams of high-powered attorneys clock up their hourly bills.
“As in the London case, both are trying to prove their version of events is true.
“In the UK, the truth defence is a difficult one for the media to use. You need to prove in court, “on the balance of probabilities”, that what you have published is substantially true.
“The Sun famously used it successfully in 1994 when EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth sued them over a page one story titled TV Kathy’s “sex romp” fury.
“You need credible witnesses and evidence, and two years ago the Sun brought more than just Amber Heard’s word against Depp’s. The fact domestic violence usually occurs behind closed doors must also have been a factor for Mr Justice Nicol when ruling he believed her story.
“The tabloid did not have to prove Depp assaulted his then wife “beyond reasonable doubt” - that is the criminal standard of proof. This was a civil case.
“Many newspapers, suffering falling sales and advertising, shy away from defending their journalists and their stories to save potentially huge legal bills. It’s often easier to cut your losses and run.
“So the Depp v The Sun case has been a great lesson in press freedom for my students, and that some media organisations will stick to their guns in the face of the powerful and famous.
“In the US, however, a jury of ordinary people rather than a high court judge will decide on the couple’s fate. And that makes the verdict far less predictable. It may come down to their interpretation of US defamation law, which witnesses they believe, or whether they preferred Aquaman to Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Whatever the outcome, the vicious battles in court on both sides of the pond could prove even more costly to their reputations than their bank balances.”
Carole Watson is a senior lecturer in media law and a member of the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ media law examinations board. She has contributed media law chapters to several books.