Johnny Depp may have lost his libel case but celebrities will continue to sue the press

No matter how strong your case, going to court is a gamble. But for many celebrities, reputation and self-image matter too much not to exercise that right

Michael Skrein
Monday 02 November 2020 18:35 GMT
Johnny Depp loses libel case against The Sun over ‘wife beater’ article

As he approached the end of his 114-page judgement in Johnny Depp’s case against News Group Newspapers, Mr Justice Nicol declared: “I accept that the defendants have shown that the words they published were substantially true in the meanings I have held them to bear.”

In essence, the statement upholds the claim made by The Sun that Depp is a "wife-beater". What chilling words those must have been for the claimant. And does this mean that, in future, people will think it not worth taking the risk of suing for libel?

It obviously is a risk. It always is. No matter how strong your case – and how strong your legal team – going to court is a gamble. It is expensive. It is an arduous and painful process. The result can never be certain. And rather than silencing the statements complained of, the case can act as a megaphone. After all, how many people have read what Dan Wootton, executive editor of The Sun, actually wrote about Depp and how many more learned about the content of the piece, and surrounding events, through media coverage of the trial?

Of course, if one loses, matters only get worse, as you find yourself faced with a judgement (in this case, lengthy and meticulous) by an independent and skilled person who has been trained to make such determinations. This judgment was very much about how the judge saw the facts, and what happened.  

Bearing in mind the risk, people contemplating suing for libel may hesitate before doing so. But they will also ask themselves which is the least bad option. The answer may be that the risk is not worth taking. Or it may be that the allegations made are so damaging, and so upsetting, that they cannot go unanswered. One way to address them may be to publish a refutation, but a denial may well achieve nothing (remember the celebrated words of Mandy-Rice-Davies when asked in court about Lord Astor’s denial of all knowledge in the context of the Profumo affair? She laughed and said, "He would, wouldn't he?”).  

The answer may be that one needs a public vindication, a judgement in a court of law, because the allegations cannot just be left out there. In that case, the question will be, “Can I afford not to sue?”. This will most likely have been in the minds of the claimant team in this case, particularly in the present climate.

If litigation appears to be the best course of action, the next question will be where to do it. England has an excellent legal system, and excellent judges. Importantly, it is far easier for people who are public figures to sue in England than, for instance, in the US. That is because of the ardent application in American law of the protection of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  

So, where does this judgement in Depp’s case leave libel actions in general? Will this be the last? No, of course not. Reputation and self-image matter too much. Human beings have a view of themselves and of their behaviour and they care about what other people think. The law gives them a right to go to court if others say or write things about them that matter and make others think the worse of them. People will continue to exercise that right.

Michael Skrein is senior media litigation partner at Reed Smith

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in