If there’s one lesson I have painfully and unforgettably learnt from nearly 40 years working in the newspaper industry, it is that unnecessary litigation should be avoided at all costs, because the only winners are the lawyers.
One particularly expensive example of that arose when a prominent Aberdeen businessman sued this newspaper and me, as editor, over a report we had published which was critical of him. I believed, and all (yes, all) our lawyers agreed, that we were right and our case was bulletproof.
Come the day of the scheduled court case, the businessman withdrew his claim and agreed to pay our costs. Success. Or so we thought.
The euphoria at being proved right was short-lived once our costs were submitted and subjected to a process called taxation, whereby a legal accountant goes through the claim, line by line, striking out anything considered not absolutely essential.
The result? We were left £100,000 out of pocket. The ultimate pyrrhic victory. It was a sobering lesson.
The memories came flooding back last week, when I began to follow with interest the two separate libel trials taking place either side of the Atlantic, one involving actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard in America, and the other featuring footballers’ wives, Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney, in London.
Compulsive but desperately sad viewing
The salacious details emerging from both cases make fascinating reading and are clearly being lapped up by audiences worldwide, obsessed with so-called celebrity culture. Regardless of the outcome, however, none of the four combatants can win.
Johnny Depp’s previously stellar career already lay in ruins as a result of his recent failed action against the Sun newspaper, which called him a “wife beater”, an allegation the High Court in London found to be justified.
Far from cutting his losses, Depp is now in the throes of a similar action against Ms Heard, who claimed she had been subjected to domestic abuse, but did not name the alleged abuser.
Mr Depp and Ms Heard will no longer be remembered for their acting careers, merely as two seriously flawed individuals
The same shocking claims and counterclaims made in the earlier case are now being repeated, but with an additional aggravating factor. Unlike in the UK, TV cameras are allowed in American court rooms, and every minute of the proceedings is being viewed in homes the length and breadth of the world.
Mr Depp and Ms Heard will no longer be remembered for their acting careers, merely as two seriously flawed individuals seemingly determined to bring down each other, regardless of the financial and reputational cost. It may be compulsive viewing, but it is also desperately sad to watch.
Painting an unflattering self-portrait
Back in London, it is equally soul-destroying to witness two women, famous only because of whom they married, living out their privileged lives in the full glare of publicity.
At the time of writing, Ms Rooney’s evidence was still in its infancy, but Ms Vardy has been subjected to days of close questioning, during which she has openly admitted employing an agent to secure publicity for her.
Simply on the basis of what she has admitted or volunteered, it is clear that her life revolves around attempting to carve out a career for herself, using her husband’s football success as a stepping stone. Quite why she would wish to undermine that ambition by entering into an expensive and embarrassing court case based on a social media post by Ms Rooney is beyond me.
Rooney's lawyer claims WhatsApp messages that would show the leaking of stories to the Sun are on a phone dropped off the side of a boat. He says it is now "lying at the bottom of sea in Davy Jones' locker".
Vardy asks the court: "Who is Davy Jones?"
The judge intervenes.
— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) May 12, 2022
The offending post, in which Ms Rooney accused her of leaking stories to the media, would have been long forgotten had she not decided to keep it alive. Countless attempts were made to persuade her to drop the action. Even the judge, at a pre-trial hearing, advised her to try to settle out of court, but to no avail.
Should her action prove successful, I hope Ms Vardy feels that it justifies the unflattering picture of her which has now been painted.
Derek Tucker is a former editor of The Press and Journal