Oh, Sam Fender. We were totally fine with you rocking up to BBC Breakfast with a hangover for the ages, even when you looked as if you might vomit. In fact, it was the kind of thing that made people love you even more. But to post a selfie with Johnny Depp mere seconds after the verdict in his trial against ex-wife Amber Heard was announced? Yikes. Depp might have won the case, but in the picture – taken in the beer garden of Newcastle’s The Bridge Tavern on the final day of the biggest celebrity court drama of the decade – Fender doesn’t mention such legal matters. Instead, Fender brands Depp and his rocker pal Jeff Beck “serious heroes”.
The US court may have ruled that Heard had damaged Depp’s career due to a 2018 op-ed piece she wrote about domestic violence – which didn’t mention Depp at all – but something more important was always at stake: the result of the UK libel suit Depp lost against The Sun in 2020, taken out after they branded him a “wife-beater”. The result of this first trial still stands, as do the statements by UK High Court’s Justice Andrew Nicol, who said the newspaper’s language was not libellous, as “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard”.
Nicol confirmed that 12 of 14 alleged instances of domestic violence against Heard occurred, and used that as evidence to rule against Depp. And while Heard may have lost the wider defamation case in the latest trial – in which Depp sought $50m in damages – she was also awarded $2m for Depp’s lawyer calling her abuse allegations “a hoax”. On this side of the Pond, Depp, legally, is a known domestic abuser. These don’t sound like the actions of a “serious hero”.
Fender isn’t the only one to show social media support for Depp in the wake of such a serious claim. Among the many celebrities who have “liked” Depp’s official statement were Lakeith Stanfield, Emma Roberts, Gemma Chan, Bella Hadid, Taika Waititi, Jennifer Aniston, Riley Keough and Jason Momoa, who stars alongside Heard in the Aquaman films – though Momoa also liked Heard’s post-case statement, too. Of course, they have a right to say and support whoever and whatever they choose, but even if they have sided with Depp and believe no abuse took place, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that during the case Heard was subjected to a harrowing social media pile-on in which online abuse – death and rape threats included – was a daily occurrence.
By the following day, Fender had removed the post from his account, perhaps because he may have regretted it or been advised to take it down, but the fact that his support for Depp – even simply via the medium of pints – comes just days after his fundraising show at Newcastle City Hall for housing charity North East Homeless to me makes this moment of standing by the actor all the more disappointing. Fender, a compassionate, heart-on-sleeve 28-year-old from North Shields, has long fought for the disadvantaged. He’s raised money for The Big Issue, petitioned for UK councils to stop charging for emergency community helplines, helped out at food banks and, in an interview last year with The Guardian, rallied against “the sheer disparity between the 1 per cent and the rest of the world”. Fender went on to state that “these culture wars are valid wars that need to be fought – there’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of racism and homophobia”. Fender cares about people – that much is obvious. So for someone so committed to amplifying the voices of those who are usually silenced, the fact he’s managed to align himself with the sweeping tide of misogyny that has come alongside celebrations of Depp’s win feels like a serious misstep.
There’s not much we can do about the fact that the old guard of rock’n’roll are apparently on Depp’s side, from Jeff Beck proudly taking him on tour, to Paul McCartney flashing Depp’s face up on the big screens during his latest US shows. But for a younger guitar star on the rise, a little more sensitivity would have been welcome.
Depp’s case may have been about defamation rather than domestic violence, but it is still thought by some that his win will make victims of abuse less likely to come forward. “I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women,” said Heard in a statement released after the case closed. “It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated.”
It’s something that will be even worse for those without access to fancy lawyers and a cushion of money to fall back on if things don’t work out. “I’m getting messages from women saying they fear they’re going to be sued for speaking about the abuse they suffered,” wrote barrister and academic Dr Charlotte Proudman on Twitter, after the verdict was announced. “They have no money, no fame, no platform. They have their truth but that’s not enough, it’s never been enough.”
Thankfully, Fender knows that it’s pretty easy to make a mistake. “People f*** up,” he once told NME. “Everyone is a flawed character. If you’re not admitting that you have flaws, then you’re a f***ing psychopath.” That Fender has now deleted the post perhaps means hopefully he’s realised that he has made a mistake. What’s everybody else’s excuse?