In the midst of a global pandemic, you could be forgiven for not keeping up with Johnny Depp’s libel case against News Group Newspapers (NGN), in which judgement was handed down today.

The actor, who sued the publisher of The Sun for an article labelling him a “wife beater”, has lost his defamation action and now faces an estimated £5m legal bill. In his decision Mr Justice Nicol said “The claimant [Depp] has not succeeded in his action for libel….the defendants [the Sun and News Group Newspapers] have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true”. It is expected that Depp will appeal the decision.

Depp has always claimed taking the matter to court was not about compensation but rather about restoring his reputation. After 23 hours on the witness stand, where he was questioned on allegations of brutal violence and of his drink and drugs use, it is now clear that the decision to sue NGN was a high risk strategy which has ultimately gone badly wrong. Most observers would agree that the lurid accusations aired in court have had a more lasting impact on Depp’s reputation than the original article ever did. This raises the question: when it comes to defamatory or libellous comments of a high profile nature, could raising an action ultimately do more harm than good?

The Case

The trial began at the High Court in London on 7 July 2020, spanning 3 weeks. Depp spent in excess of 23 hours on the stand denying he assaulted his ex-wife of 15 months. Amber Heard similarly spent four days on the stand testifying that The Sun was correct in labelling her former husband a "wife beater." Heard made 14 allegations of abuse, said to have occurred between 2013 and 2016.

Heard’s allegations have been widely publicised, and media outlets such as the BBC, CNN and Sky closely followed each stage of the trial. With headlines such as “Depp ‘threw bottles like grenades at Heard” and “I was afraid Depp was going to kill me, says Heard” it is now clear that this very public airing of dirty laundry has done more damage to Depp’s reputation than The Sun’s article ever could. In particular, the case went beyond merely Depp’s relationship with Heard and evidence was led that Depp discussed smoking drugs with his daughter who was then aged 13.

Today Mr Justice Nicol found in favour or the newspaper holding the allegations published were substantially true. In his ruling the judge said “I have found that the great majority of assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard”.  In the face of such categoric comments it is difficult to see how Depp’s reputation can ever now recover.

How can I protect my reputation?

The case was a classic “he said, she said” defamation trial. The decision ultimately decided not on legal arguments, but rather on whose version of events was accepted.

Such legal actions always carry a risk that further private information will enter the public domain. In this case, in an effort to restore his reputation, Depp opened his private life to intense media scrutiny and commentary. Vast amounts of private information surfaced during the proceedings and will remain in the public domain.

For Depp, taking on NGN in such a public way was clearly a point of principle. For the majority of individuals and businesses, however, the expense and reputational risk of taking a defamation case to court will significantly outweigh the benefit of a positive outcome at trial. A more measured response, at least in the first instance, will often yield the best results.

So, what other options are there?

  • Reaching out to the author/publisher. Quite often, a carefully worded letter addressing the defamatory comments in a calm and proportionate manner can have the most impact. It also gives you the opportunity to explain why you think the statement is defamatory and how this has impacted your reputation or the reputation of your business without the need for a court action. This is an effective and low-cost alternative to raising proceedings, and we are often asked to assist companies and individuals in finding the right wording when issuing a response.
  • Reaching out to the platform. Search engine operators, social media platforms and other online publishers may consider removing defamatory content on a voluntary basis. We have experience of advising clients in relation to “take-down” requests and removing potentially harmful search results from search engines such as Google.
  • Improve your own online position. Often, it is practical steps such as improving your own online presence which help to neutralise any negative comments.
  • Mediation. Mediation is an alternative way to resolve a dispute with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator). It is less formal (and expensive) than court proceedings, and the emphasis is placed preserving an ongoing relationship between the parties. Most important of all, the mediation process (and any settlement reached) is completely confidential. This removes the risk of having potentially damaging allegations aired in public.

We regularly advise individuals and companies on strategic reputation management and how to respond to potentially defamatory statements. If you would like more information on any of the issues covered in this article or any other aspect of defamation law, please do get in touch.