22 August 2022

Wagatha Christie: Truth, The Public Interest, And Inferential Fact Finding (Vardy v Rooney)

Gatehouse Chambers


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The trial of the case between Rebecca Vardy and Coleen Rooney finally reached a conclusion (save as to costs) after a 7-day trial which was reported widely in the media.
UK Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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The trial of the case between Rebecca Vardy and Coleen Rooney finally reached a conclusion (save as to costs) after a 7-day trial which was reported widely in the media.

Mrs Justice Steyn (the "Judge") dismissed the claim in a closed reasoned judgment, which read something like a true crime Agatha Christie novel.

The Judge preferred Mrs Rooney's evidence to that of Mrs Vardy, drawing inferences that Mrs Vardy was largely responsible for leaking information from Mrs Rooney's private Instagram account to the Sun Newspaper. While the conduit for the information was Mrs Vardy's agent (Ms Watt), the Judge rejected "a thesis that Ms Watt was acting alone, without Ms Vardy's knowledge, consent or approval".

Therefore, Mrs Rooney was successful in her truth defence, in that her imputation was found to be substantially true. Her alternate defence relying on the public interest was unsuccessful as her belief in the public interest was genuine but was not reasonable in the circumstances.

Vardy v Rooney and another [2022] EWHC 2017 (QB)

What are the practical implications of this case?

The case will be of interest as a practical application of the truth defence and for the Judge's finding that the public interest defence failed.

Further, the case shows the availability of inferential fact finding where:

  • There is a lack of primary evidence or where evidence has been deliberately lost or destroyed.
  • Journalists have applied to set aside witness summons and disclosure orders relying on source protection: see section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and where waivers of source protection under the same section have been given (Mrs Vardy) or given and withdrawn (Ms Watt).
  • The failure of Mrs Vardy to witness summon her "close friend and agent", Ms Watt, who was on any accounting a key witness in the case. Instead, Mrs Vardy attempted to rely on Ms Watt's witness statement for trial as a hearsay statement.
  • A course of dealing with the press including a significant relationship between a celebrity and particular tabloid title.

What was the background?

The factual background of this case has been well-rehearsed in the mainstream press.

However, in summary, Mrs Rooney was concerned that stories from her personal and private Instagram account were being leaked to the Sun newspaper. She concocted a number of stories and posted them but to only Mrs Vardy's account as she suspected Mrs Vardy of being behind the leaks. Significantly, the stories posted to Mrs Vardy's account were run in the Sun newspaper.

On 09 October 2019, Mrs Rooney posted on social media alleging Mrs Vardy was behind not only these leaks but also the earlier leaks to the press (the "Reveal Post").

Mrs Vardy sued in defamation; her claim issued on 12 June 2020.

Mr Justice Warby J (as he then was) determined the single meaning as preliminary issue in Vardy v Rooney [2020] EWHC 3156 (QB) as being:

"Over a period of years Ms Vardy had regularly and frequently abused her status as a trusted follower of Ms Rooney's personal Instagram account by secretly informing The Sun newspaper of Ms Rooney's private posts and stories, thereby making public without Ms Rooney's permission a great deal of information about Ms Rooney, her friends and family which she did not want made public."

It was common ground that this single meaning met the common law test for a defamatory statement and as met the serious harm threshold.

Mrs Rooney's defence was that the meaning of or imputation was substantially true; and in the alternative, that the imputation was made in the public interest.

It will be recalled that there were some highly unusual circumstances in which some of Mrs Vardy's disclosure was not available including the loss of Ms Watt's mobile phone overboard after a boat was hit by a wave (shortly after a case management hearing where production of the phone was ordered) and the deletion of all attachments – mainly photos and video files – to Mrs Vardy's WhatsApp messages when being transferred from her to her solicitors.

The Judge was invited to draw inferences from the fact of this deliberate loss or destruction of evidence.

Further, the Judge also drew inferences from the terms applications by journalists to set aside witness summons including whether they stated a position that they could neither confirm or deny the identity of a source for a story.

Further the Judge was invited to draw inferences from an alleged pattern in Mrs Vardy's behaviour, as her ladyship noted:

"Ms Rooney also relies on a number of other matters, most notably allegations that Ms Vardy leaked or sought to leak personal information about other people to the press, as supporting the inference that Ms Vardy leaked information from Ms Rooney's Private Instagram Account. Ms Vardy acknowledges that she sought to leak a story regarding Mr Danny Drinkwater, a professional footballer, but denies that she had an established practice of secretly leaking information about others, or that any of the matters relied on support the inference that Ms Rooney asks the court to draw."

What did the court decide?

The Judge found Mrs Vardy to be a less reliable witness that Mrs Rooney noting that Mrs Vardy's evidence departed significantly from the contemporary and documentary evidence and when pressed on an issue on occasion gave responses which lacked credibility.

The Judge also drew most, but not all of the inferences, that her ladyship was invited to draw in respect of Mrs Vardy's pattern of involvement with the press including her collaboration with Mr Watt as the conduit to pass information to journalists at the Sun.

The Judge, for example, was not convinced that Mrs Vardy was the writer or even sole source for the 'Secret Wag' column in the Sun newspaper.

For these reasons the truth defence succeeded. The defence grounded in the public interest failed as the Judge did not find Mrs Rooney's belief that she was acting in the public interest to be a reasonable one.

Case details

  • Court: Queen's Bench Division
  • Judge: Steyn J
  • Date of judgment: 29 July 2022

First published by LexisNexis 8th August 2022.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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