Not A Very Sun-ny Outcome: Johnny Depp loses libel case against The Sun

November 12, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Actor Johnny Depp has lost his libel case against The Sun, after being labelled a “wife-beater” by the newspaper in 2018.

What does this mean?

Back in Spring 2020, Depp brought a lawsuit against The Sun for assertions against his character, which the actor dubbed “completely untrue” (to see our article on that, click here). Following the November 2020 judgment in the English High Court, the “wife-beater” assertion (the libel) is essentially legitimised.

The Sun and News Group Newspapers (the defendants) have maintained that the article was honest, and Judge Mr Justice Nicol deemed that The Sun had proven that what they wrote was “substantially true”, having relied on the defence of truth. The burden of proof was on The Sun to prove that what they published was substantially accurate against the civil standard of proof, namely on the balance of probabilities. Nicol J also found 12 of the 14 allegations of domestic violence to be genuine, and as an indication of Depp’s potential feelings toward Amber Heard, cited an email sent in August 2016 by Depp to Heard, describing her as “gold-digging”, “low level” and “pointless”.

Meanwhile, the ruling has proved controversial. Some have praised The Sun for its long-standing efforts in campaigning for domestic abuse victims. Others, including Depp’s lawyer Jenny Alfa, concluded that the decision was overly reliant on Heard’s testimony and redundant of all counter-evidence given from authorities. Depp publicly confirmed an appeal of the judgment on 6 November 2020.

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights the ever-growing awareness of domestic abuse. With a case as prevalent as this, there is a clear message for victims: regardless of the prominence of the alleged abuser, victims are no longer expected to hide the truth.

The question now raised by many is what of Depp’s reputation? Defamation fundamentally seeks to cause serious harm to the positive reputation of the accused. A major consequence of the judgment could be Depp’s connections with top film and television producers: his next film, Minamata, is due for release in February 2021 and he has advertising links with luxury goods brand Dior. Dior are yet to voice opinions on the court’s decision, and it is uncertain whether the February film release will go ahead. It has been confirmed that Depp has resigned from his role as Gellert Grindelwald in the Harry Potter spin-off franchise Fantastic Beasts upon request from Warner Bros. (the producers of the Harry Potter film series). Even with an appeal pending, a new ruling could take months to surface, let alone assist in saving any other film and television contracts off the back of such serious allegations.

Despite Heard’s insistence that she feared for her life during the course of her relationship with Depp, and the result being a vindicating decision in the eyes of her legal team, it is worth expanding on the future appeal. Depp’s legal team suggested it would be “ridiculous” if he did not appeal, but the likelihood of success could be slim. In civil proceedings, a ruling by a trial judge is considered analogous with a trial by jury afforded in criminal proceedings, so it also carries a high threshold of fact-finding. Any appeal would usually be on a point of law, which seeks to address and re-evaluate the correct application of the law (in this case, the tort of defamation) on the procedure used in the court of first instance.

In the meantime, the post-decision discussions provide some important food for thought. Perhaps Depp’s pre-trial reputation and loyal fan base can save his reputation, or we could see irreparable personal and professional damage following the “wife beater” endorsement. Despite the news of an appeal, it is certain that reputational damage will remain so, long after the date of this judgment.

Report written by Evangeline Taylor

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