The case of ‘Wagatha Christie’ offers a fascinating look at celebrity culture

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

These were some of the facets fueling gossip in a libel case contested by the wives of two famous English footballers that is expected to come to an end on Thursday. The proceedings, centered on an Instagram feud between the two women, have captivated Britain over the past week, with the established media and tabloids breathlessly covering each revelation, and photographers vying for photos of the celebrities they They arrive outside the London courtroom.

The judge in the case will then rule on whether one of the women, Coleen Rooney, defamed the other, Rebekah Vardy, in social media posts that accused Ms Vardy of leaking Ms Rooney’s personal information to 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 used their exposure to build huge social media followings and achieve some fame for own right as media personalities. Both took the stand during the case, dressed in a variety 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, pointing to the “healthy lashes of sex, deceit, money and glory” in the case.

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

The public feud between the two women began in October 2019 after Ms Rooney revealed online that a follower on her private Instagram account had been leaking information to a tabloid newspaper. She was suspicious of who the leaker was, she added, explaining that he had engineered a sting operation in which he gradually narrowed his followers down to a single account, Ms. Vardy’s, and then posted fake stories to see if they would show up. on the account. Media.

Ms Rooney said the stories were indeed collected and revealed the findings of her investigation in an online statement accusing Ms Vardy of leaking them. Ms. Rooney’s apparent detective skills led the case to be known as the “Wagatha Christie” case, matching the acronym WAG and the name of detective novelist Agatha Christie.

Asked in court by Ms Vardy’s lawyer what she intended to achieve with her online statement, Ms Rooney said: “I wasn’t achieving anything; what I wanted was to stop the person who was leaking my private information to The Sun.”

“This was my last resort,” he added.

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

“I’ve been called a leaker, and it’s not nice,” Ms. Vardy said during the hearing.

In 2020, Ms Vardy brought libel proceedings against Ms Rooney and because the two women could not come to an agreement, the case went to trial, an unusual and costly process that will have racked up millions of pounds in legal fees. according to the estimates of the lawyers.

With such vast sums at stake and the private lives of the rich and famous on full display in court, the feud quickly captivated large sections of the British public.

Even the most serious media outlets, which would normally ignore a celebrity feud, have found a way into the story by looking at the broader implications of the widespread use of social media, Professor Bingham said.

“There’s a legitimacy to talking about this because it’s in a courtroom and it raises really serious privacy issues,” he said.

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

Interest was so high that attendees spilled into an overflow room in the London courtroom. The juicy revelations were live blogged by journalists and summarized by media outlets as diverse as the BBC and The Daily Mail, though by Thursday, journalists waiting outside the courtroom looked set for the end of the trial.

Mrs Rooney and her husband, former England football captain Wayne Rooney, had been experiencing marital tensions, it was revealed in a session. WhatsApp messages between Ms Vardy and her agent, Caroline Watt, disparaged Ms Rooney and discussed leaking stories about other people in exchange for payment, the court also heard. And Watt accidentally dropped a phone potentially containing relevant WhatsApp messages in the North Sea, Vardy’s lawyer said, a mishap that Rooney’s lawyer said appeared to be a case of concealment of evidence.

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 was responsible for the leaks. They have also said that Ms. Watt is ill and therefore unable to testify.

If Ms Vardy wins the libel case, damages awarded are likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds, according to legal experts, and Ms Rooney will likely have to pay her rival’s legal fees. If Ms. Rooney wins, Ms. Vardy will get the bill for the fees and she could face a contrarian case for violation of privacy, said Ms. Matthews, the defamation attorney.

“The trial is not going to change the image of defamation as the exclusive preserve of the rich,” Ms Matthews added, noting that few people had the money to risk such legal proceedings.

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

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

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