I arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice two hours early. A Johnny Depp fan rolled her eyes: I was far too late. Courtroom number 13 had fewer than a dozen seats for the public, and she and her friends had been queueing for them almost since dawn. I didn’t stand a chance.
These diehards came to the trial of Depp against The Sun newspaper every day for three weeks. Each one could have made a short story about our relationship with celebrity. A woman told me she’d loved Depp ever since he visited her sick daughter at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Another said she was drawn to his case because her relative had been wrongly accused of domestic violence. “It can happen to anyone,” she said. They loved Johnny because he was different to them, they loved him because he was the same.
These so-called Deppheads handed flowers to their hero when he arrived at the court each morning, and they booed his ex-wife Amber Heard whenever she appeared. They were just one more eye-opening part in what now ranks among the more extraordinary libel trials in English legal history, and surely the most extraordinary this century. Only if you have been on a month-long Zoom call can you have missed it.
Depp, one of the movies’ most mercurial talents, sued The Sun, until recently Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, over an opinion column that labelled him a “wife-beater” who had left Heard fearing for her life. He argued that his reputation had gone from “Cinderella to Quasimodo in 0.6 seconds”, and that he had lost his lucrative role in Pirates of the Caribbean sequels as a result.
The trial, which ended on Tuesday, was so surreal that at times I wondered if I had taken as many drugs as Depp himself. It was a show-business grudge-match playing out in a building older than Hollywood itself. It was a mixture of #MeToo, domestic violence, celebrity gossip, free speech, and drug education advisory. It ploughed on, with witnesses beamed in from the US and Australia, even as almost everything else in central London remained shut by the pandemic.
Mr Justice Nicol’s judgment is not expected until the autumn, but the public verdict is already in: the trial was a tawdry spectacle. Highly paid barristers debated who had defecated in Depp’s bed. They quizzed Heard’s sister on how she and Depp snorted cocaine with a tampon applicator. They argued over whether Heard had an extramarital affair with the billionaire Elon Musk.
“I feel like an awful person for being here,” an out-of-work theatre designer told me, as she angled for a picture of Depp. A number of those outside court were furloughed workers, with time to kill. Hollywood has declined to release blockbuster movies during lockdown; this trial provided us with a more salacious celebrity fix, something to distract us from the mundanity.
Was this really a proper use of the High Court? Was it fair for Heard to have her allegations examined in a case where she wasn’t a claimant or a defendant but simply a witness? Could anyone possibly emerge as a winner from such wreckage?
“Only a moron in a hurry would entertain the thought of having the break-up of their relationship picked over by two QCs and a judge, in full public view,” says Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at the firm Howard Kennedy. “The last celebrity to successfully sue for libel without collateral damage was Liberace in the 1950s.”
The heyday of libel trials was the 1980s and 1990s, with claimants such as the musician Elton John and the cricketer Ian Botham. These days legal costs are higher, potential payouts are lower, and the media has a stronger defence of responsible journalism. So well-known figures, such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, are more likely to sue for invasion of privacy — trying to seal embarrassing disputes, rather than resolve them.
But let me play devil’s advocate. There’s something more tawdry than libel trials and it’s a place where libel restraints barely exist. In the US, Elon Musk is able to call a British cave diver, involved in the heroic rescue of schoolchildren, “pedo guy”. Public figures can only win libel battles if they can prove false allegations were made with “actual malice”. So, during the 2016 presidential election, Democratic officials were accused of running a child sex ring from a Washington pizza restaurant. TV stations this week nearly aired an interview accusing top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci of creating coronavirus and shipping it to China. This is what happens when the balance between free speech and truth goes awry.
Thanks to social media, we are all accustomed to half-truths and flat-out lies. We hear rumours and allegations. We aren’t sure whether we should be boycotting Woody Allen films or not. The Depp trial promised something tantalising — the truth. At least a truth.
Some of the best lawyers in England and Wales would determine whether Depp was a domestic abuser, or whether his ex-wife Heard was a fantasist. Given that Depp is still a major movie star, featuring in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts film franchise, the answer seemed worth knowing.
Of course, the reason the trial made headlines, day after day, was because it drew back the curtain on the penthouses and film sets, not to mention the meeting where Depp’s advisers apparently told him his $650m in earnings had evaporated, leaving him with $100m in tax liabilities. Nonetheless, it wasn’t just voyeurism. It was due process.
“There is no real room for a middle ground here. One side is plainly lying, and to an extraordinary extent,” said Depp’s lawyers in their opening statement. I was gripped by this trial for the same reason that some people are gripped by true-crime podcasts. Where did the truth lie?
Since the #MeToo movement rose to prominence in 2017, the film mogul Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 years for rape, and the comedian Bill Cosby to between three and 10 years for indecent assault. Men in media, business and politics have been held to account for their abuse.
The Sun’s article about Depp put the allegations against him in the context of #MeToo. But unlike with most #MeToo allegations, the accuser here is the accused’s ex-wife. Depp and Heard met in 2009 through the film The Rum Diary. They started dating in 2011, married in 2015 and divorced in 2016.
Towards the end of their 15-month marriage, Heard filed for a restraining order. The order, which was granted without Depp being able to respond, as is usual practice, was the basis for The Sun article. Heard subsequently wrote a Washington Post opinion piece, in which she didn’t mention Depp by name but spoke of having become “a public figure representing domestic abuse”. Depp sued The Sun in the UK; he is also suing Heard directly for $50m in Virginia, where the Washington Post is printed.
This is not a typical case of abuse of power, although Heard has emphasised she was half Depp’s age when they met (23 years to 46) and that he had exalted status in Hollywood. It may have the form of a libel claim, but no journalists gave evidence. Most days, it looked more like a domestic violence case.
Whereas many #MeToo cases have relied on the testimony of various women to build watertight cases, Heard stood alone. She alleged 14 separate occasions of physical violence by Depp. He denied them — indeed, he said he was the abused party.
It was a “He said, She said” scenario. Except, given the ubiquity of camera phones, text messages and celebrity entourages, it was more complicated.
A “He said, She said” set-up suggests that one side is telling the truth, and the other isn’t. In reality, both Depp and Heard sat in the wooden witness box, their Hollywood looks juxtaposed with sets of A4 ring-binders, and their accounts were severely tested under cross-examination.
In his five days of testimony, Depp depicted himself as a “Southern gentleman”, only to be confronted by gruesome text messages including one in which he had joked to a friend: “Let’s burn Amber!” He struggled to remember details of a flight in which he was alleged to have passed out, a relevant point given Heard alleges that his blackouts are part of the reason he doesn’t recall being abusive. He changed his account to accept that he may have headbutted Heard, albeit as a “collision” while fending her off one of her attacks.
Heard, meanwhile, claimed to have only hit Depp in self-defence. But one of her own recordings caught her saying: “I did start a physical fight.” Heard told the court that one of Depp’s attacks had caused “tons of damage” to their penthouse. But her account was contradicted by two police officers, who said they saw nothing of the sort when called to the scene.
To believe that Depp is not a wife-beater, you have to think that Heard fabricated allegations over a number of years. You would need to explain the cuts that some witnesses once noticed on Heard’s arms, and Depp’s reference, on another occasion, to a “fight on the train which was physical”.
To believe Heard’s account, you have to tally her claim of two black eyes and a broken nose, following “one of the worst and most violent nights” of their relationship, with one stylist’s testimony that there was no bruising and a make-up artist’s account that there was “minimal discolouration” and a cut lip. You would need to explain why a nurse didn’t find damage to her scalp, after Heard claimed Depp had pulled out clumps of her hair.
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One shortcut might be to trust Depp, on the basis that he wouldn’t have brought the case unless he was sure of himself. But historically suing for libel is not a fail-safe indicator that you are telling the truth. In 1895, Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry over the allegation that he solicited other men. His case collapsed, he was jailed for gross indecency, and he died in exile soon after. In 1995, the former Conservative junior defence minister Jonathan Aitken sued The Guardian for alleging he’d accepted hospitality from the Saudi royal family. His case also collapsed, and he was jailed for perjury.
Celebrity fandom offers a simple way out — you believe his account or hers. Watching the trial, I wondered if there might be a middle ground after all, where both parties might have lost control in the course of a stormy relationship. Would that be enough to call Depp a wife-beater? Or Heard a fantasist?
Domestic violence campaigners have an ambivalent relationship with the legal system. On the one hand, they want abusers to be brought to justice. On the other, they are historically sceptical that the courts can deliver it.
Heard could claim a double disadvantage: first, an alleged victim of domestic abuse, an offence for which evidence is often hard, and second, her claims subject to a libel suit in London, occasionally known as the defamation capital of the world. She also had no control over the way The Sun put its case, meaning that she could not insist they call an expert witness on domestic violence, for example. “I did not file this lawsuit, and despite its significance, I would have preferred not to have been in court,” she said at the end of the trial. She spoke of the pain of reliving the worst moments of her relationship with Depp.
However, it struck me that there were some aspects that helped Heard. The fact that Depp sued The Sun meant her case was put by someone with deep pockets. Both sides are likely to have spent several million pounds on lawyers, whereas Heard, who gave her $7m divorce settlement to charity, needed financial help to pay for her own counsel to attend court each day.
In a criminal case, Depp’s domestic abuse would have to be shown beyond reasonable doubt. Libel law operates to a lower standard. The Sun would normally have to show the truth of its allegations on the balance of probabilities, although Depp’s lawyers have argued that a higher standard should apply.
The other factor that may have helped Heard, and The Sun, is the lack of a jury. Juries have been effectively abolished from English libel trials since 2014, on the basis that they cost more, do not provide full written judgments and are unsuited to determining complex disputes over what words mean.
Depp’s celebrity might have swung a jury; it is less likely to swing the judge. “Of all the judges on the High Court bench, Mr Justice Nicol must be the one who knows least about Hollywood and celebrities,” said one senior QC. “He’d probably never heard of any of these people.” Certainly, when Heard said she wouldn’t have left home without make-up because she was in Los Angeles, Nicol played the ingénue: “You’re just going to have to explain the conjunction of those two things.” (To the relief of many people, the judge has also made clear he has little interest in the much-covered matter of who defecated on the bed.)
Even a judge is sometimes left to guesstimate who is telling the truth. In 2013 Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative cabinet minister, sued The Sun after it alleged he had called police in Downing Street “plebs”; he lost after the judge decided, in the same courtroom 13, that a police officer did not have “the wit, the imagination or the inclination” to fabricate the allegation.
If Heard loses, it will not necessarily have broad repercussions for the #MeToo movement. This is a particular case, about a particular piece of journalism that (rightly or wrongly) assumed guilt. Heard could hope for a better result in the US libel trial, which is due to start in January, though the legal battle is consuming some of the most important years of her career.
If Depp loses, the financial hit will probably be manageable. This is a man who once happily spent $3m firing the ashes of Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, out of a cannon. His career will probably survive too, so long as it is not a definitive defeat, says Greg Jenner, author of Dead Famous, a history of celebrity. Mel Gibson, who has a history of anti-Semitic remarks including questioning the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, continues to appear in films. Louis CK, the comedian who has admitted to sexual misconduct, has begun a comeback. Men’s careers often seem more Teflon than women’s.
For those who wanted a celebrity fix, I wonder if this trial has delivered. Depp was a rare combination in Hollywood of beauty, charisma and counterculture. “He’s this ethereal kooky oddball,” says Jenner.
Yet Depp testified that fame was “the life of a fugitive”, and that his own name now “sounds foreign” to him.
We heard about his problems with prescription and recreational drugs, his financial chaos, his misogynistic text conversations. He and Heard grew up in homes marked by domestic abuse, and despite their riches, their lives remained marked by domestic arguments years later.
We want to get behind the mask of A-list celebrities, but when we do, we suddenly wish we hadn’t. A woman with a Johnny Depp Forever tattoo told me she had sat out her idol’s own testimony on the basis it would be too painful to watch. Hollywood sells escapism, but the reality is often rather sad.
The Depp trial has at least shown us this truth. Whatever the judgment says, it is likely to come closer to revealing the character of Depp and Heard than a thousand celebrity magazines have.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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