The coverage of the Johnny Depp libel trial sends the wrong message to domestic abuse victims

It doesn’t matter what you believe happened in the relationship between these Hollywood stars – someone’s poor character traits or their likeliness to drink do not mean that they cannot be abused

Jess Phillips
Saturday 18 July 2020 15:27 BST
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Johnny Depp and Amber Heard arrive at the High Court as libel hearing continues

I have been libelled many times. It happens near daily that someone posts a weird meme on Twitter claiming that Rupert Murdoch has paid me £50,000 in order to make me think a certain way. I’m not sure which annoys me more, the fact that I am being shamed and judged for receiving money of which I have never got to spend a penny, or that people think I can’t have my own opinions and must have some powerful man or another puppeteering me.

I guess that money must be sitting in a bank account somewhere with all the cash that people have claimed I get from the Israeli government for daring to speak out on antisemitism. One day perhaps my great-great-niece will be contacted by heir hunters and receive the spoils of hundreds of thousands of pounds I never knew existed.

Periodically, I get so annoyed about the lies I read about myself that I contact a lawyer and ask what can be done about it, but I always end up concluding that the amount of money, time and personal pain that would have to be endured isn’t worth it. Much like the fact that I ignore an old injury that causes my ankle to fracture every couple of years, I can’t be bothered to take a few weeks out of circulation to undergo the surgery to fix it. There are too many other things going on and I simply don’t have time.

Watching how the Johnny Depp vs The Sun case plays out across the newspapers makes me certain I have made the right decision. Every day we are provided with a new watercooler moment for everyone to salivate over. What worries me deeply about this drama is that Amber Heard’s character seems to be on trial, when she had absolutely no part in bringing this case or any other case forward. She is merely a witness in the trial and has no control over what the fallout might be, her life laid bare because of a fight between two other parties. She never got the chance to decide if she would prefer to hobble around on a knackered ankle and just crack on with her life.

I am also deeply concerned about what I read in the papers that seems to be a character assassination of Heard, leaning too far, in my opinion, towards the old tropes about domestic abuse that campaigners like me have tried for years to combat. We are invited to hear claims about how much she drank, what a difficult personality she had, how she used to start arguments, as if any of this is relevant to the question of whether Depp ever abused her. It isn’t.

I don’t know what happened in the glamorous homes of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. It doesn’t really matter what you believe in this case; fundamentally, someone’s poor character traits or their likeliness to drink do not mean they cannot be abused. Abused women are not all one type of perfect picture of victimhood who would incite sympathy from everyone they met. On the contrary, when I worked in a refuge, one resident spat in my face – I can’t say I was particularly keen on her.

The other part of the case that worries me, in the messages it sends, is the trotting out of other ex-partners to testify what a great partner Depp was. While I enjoy a blast from the past – for example, hearing about Winona Ryder’s relationship with Depp (one which I idolised as a teenager) – I am just not sure how he behaved with Ryder or others in his life has any relevance to his time with Heard. For sure, a character witness is relevant, but just because someone is nice to other people or previous partners doesn’t mean they aren’t abusive – and it doesn’t mean that they are either. It effectively makes no difference. I was recently at the sentencing of a case where, in the same breath, the judge talked about how the man had strangled and beaten his ex-partner, but that she would take into account the good work he had done in the community. Perpetrators of abuse can be two things.

They are also not vicious monsters who roam their workplaces, friends’ parties and the local transport network lashing out at everyone. If they were, we would have got much better at spotting them. In the UK, there are in any year about 2.6 million people who suffer domestic abuse, so maybe, just maybe, we might have noticed if all those perpetrators were kicking off all of the time.

The reality is, of course, that many of us know and love perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse, regardless of whether we know about it or not.

Whatever the conclusion and whatever the truth in the case of Johnny Depp vs The Sun, none of us will ever truly know what happened. What I don’t want to happen is that the reporting on this case sends a message to victims of abuse in this country that no one will believe them unless they are a squeaky clean, Shirley Temple type and their perpetrator is a raging monster hated by all. We have fought too long and too hard to reset some of these mindsets in our justice system and in our culture. Let’s not go back.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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