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The ‘Wagatha Christie’ case offers fascinating insight into celebrity culture

LONDON — A candid window into the glamorous world of English football and an expose of backstabbing celebrity machinations. A phone lost in the sea, along with the evidence it supposedly contained. And a legal thriller with powerful lawyers dissecting private WhatsApp messages in open court as tears flowed in the witness box.

These are some of the gossip-fuelling facets of a disputed libel case by the wives of two famous English footballers which is set to end on Thursday. The proceedings, centered on an Instagram feud between the two women, have enthralled Britain over the past week, with news media and tabloids covering each revelation breathlessly, and photographers arguing over photos of celebrities arriving outside the courtroom in London.

The judge hearing the case will later decide whether one of the women, Coleen Rooney, defamed the other, Rebekah Vardy, in social media posts accusing Ms Vardy of leaking Ms Rooney’s personal information to the The Sun newspaper.

Tabloid coverage of football players’ wives and girlfriends (widely known in Britain by the acronym WAG) is intense, and both women have leveraged their exposure to create huge followings on social media. social and achieve some fame in their own right as media personalities. Both spoke during the affair, dressed in an array of designer clothes (dissected by the media for hidden messages).

The widespread curiosity in the proceedings should surprise no one, said Adrian Bingham, a professor of modern British history at the University of Sheffield who has studied media and gender issues. “The essence of a good story remains the same,” he said, noting the “wholesome hits of sex, deceit, money and fame” in the case.

“We don’t know how the plot ends, so it’s exciting,” he added. ” Who did that ? Who will be found guilty?

The public fight between the two women began in October 2019 after Ms Rooney revealed online that a follower of her private Instagram account leaked information to a tabloid. She suspected who the leaker was, she added, explaining that she had engineered a sting operation in which she gradually limited her followers to a single account – Ms Vardy’s – and then posted fake stories to see if they would appear in the media.

Ms Rooney said the stories had indeed been recovered and she revealed the findings of her investigation in an online statement accusing Ms Vardy of leaking them. Ms Rooney’s apparent detective skills led to the case becoming known as the “Wagatha Christie” case – playing on the acronym WAG and the name of crime novelist Agatha Christie.

When Ms Vardy’s lawyer asked her in court what she intended to achieve with her online statement, Ms Rooney said: “I wasn’t getting anything; what I wanted was to arrest the person who leaked my private information to the Sun.

“It was my last resort,” she added.

Ms Vardy denied being behind the leaks and said multiple people had access to her account. As a result of Ms Rooney’s message, she said, she suffered verbal abuse from the public during her pregnancy, including threats against the child she was carrying.

“I have been called a funder, and that is not nice,” Ms Vardy said during the hearing.

In 2020, Ms Vardy started libel proceedings against Ms Rooney and, as the two women were unable to reach a settlement, the case went to trial – an unusual and costly process which will have racked up millions of pounds in legal fees, as estimated by lawyers.

With such large sums at stake and the private lives of the rich and famous in full view in court, the feud quickly delighted large swaths of the British public.

Even the most serious news outlets, which would normally ignore such celebrity spat, have found a way to make history by analyzing the wider implications of widespread social media use, Prof Bingham said. .

“There’s legitimacy in talking about it because it’s in a courtroom and it raises real privacy issues,” he noted.

And for the tabloids, the case was a feeding frenzy. Athalie Matthews, a London-based defamation lawyer, said the personal details that emerged in court effectively blew “both parties’ personal lives into the open in a way that the press can report on. with impunity”.

Interest was so high that attendees spilled into an overflow room at the London courtroom. Juicy revelations were blogged live by reporters and summed up by outlets as diverse as the BBC and the Daily Mail – although on Thursday reporters waiting outside the courtroom appeared ready for the end of the trial.

Ms Rooney and her husband, former England football captain Wayne Rooney, had experienced marital tension, it was revealed in one sitting. WhatsApp messages between Ms Vardy and her agent, Caroline Watt, disparaged Ms Rooney and discussed leaking stories about other people in return for payment, the court also heard. And a phone potentially containing relevant WhatsApp messages was accidentally thrown by Ms Watt into the North Sea, Ms Vardy’s lawyer said – an accident which Ms Rooney’s lawyer said appeared to be a case of cover-up. proofs.

Ms Vardy acknowledged that Ms Watt had previously passed information about Ms Rooney to The Sun newspaper, but Ms Vardy’s lawyers argued there was insufficient evidence that Ms Vardy herself was responsible for the leaks . They also said Ms Watt was ill and therefore unable to give evidence.

If Ms Vardy wins the libel case, damages awarded are likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds, legal experts say, with Ms Rooney likely to pay her rival’s legal costs. If Ms Rooney wins, Ms Vardy will end up with the bill for the costs and could face a counter-suit for invasion of privacy, said Ms Matthews, the defamation lawyer.

“The lawsuit is not going to change the image of defamation as the preserve of the wealthy,” Ms Matthews added, noting that few people had the money to risk in such lawsuits.

But, Ms Matthews said, it could cause people to reconsider before posting material that could seriously damage someone’s reputation.

Regardless of the outcome, the case highlighted the inherent tensions between the desire for privacy and the price of fame. “That’s what tabloid culture is and we’re just seeing a new iteration of it in the age of social media,” Professor Bingham said.

nytimes Gt

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