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20 May 2022

Why the Depp vs Heard trial has been more vicious than Wagatha Christie

Cameras turn the court room into a gladiatorial arena.

By Elise Johnson

Reading about the Wagatha Christie libel trial between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney has had the the nation enthralled. Some of its quotes – such as when Vardy said under oath, “if I’m honest”, to which Rooney’s barrister quipped: “I would hope you’re honest because you’re sitting in a witness box” – have brought much-needed light relief to grim news cycles. 

However, this has led to unpleasantness against them on social media. It might feel like a media circus to us reading it, but we know this must be humiliating for those involved. Yet one saving grace for the “wags” is the fact that this court case hasn’t been televised. They don’t have to be hyper aware of their facial movements. There is no fear that each gesture or eye roll will be immortalised as a gif to be embedded in internet culture forevermore. 

This isn’t a luxury afforded to the brutal defamation case between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp currently taking place in Virginia, US: with judges’ consent, libel trials can be filmed. This means that every reaction is being publicly monitored, and each answer can be clipped and shared internationally.

The state of Virginia allows cameras into court to demystify the legal process, so that everyone can see what is happening. Far from putting the public at ease that justice is being done, however, they have turned the court room into a gladiatorial arena. We can watch with morbid fascination as two people rip chunks out of each other, cheering as someone we don’t know and have never met strikes a blow. The revulsion is particularly acute when Heard gives her testimony of sexual assault. Clips from that are circulating alongside the hashtag #AmberHeardIsAPsycopath and #AmberTurd; as well as videos that cruelly mimic moments when she gets upset.

The televisation of the court case is tapping into a vicious side of social media. With platforms focused on video, they are creating a perfect storm in the algorithm of hatred and bile. Who knows whether Heard or Depp are telling the truth; what is clear is how harmful the reaction against Heard is to anyone who has been sexually assaulted. Seeing people constantly questioning her body language and physical reaction to court proceedings isn’t justice, it’s drama.

The justice system is designed to take weeks because it closely scrutinises the evidence and weighs up arguments. But this procedural element is something people can’t experience with the clips they consume on websites and social media.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we can’t see the Wagatha Christie trial play out for ourselves – from the awkward looks between Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy, to the performance of the barristers. Far from making these celebrity trials seem more human and real, they turn them into a circus.

The court drawings and photographers outside of the courts are enough – leave the rest to the written word.

[See also: The only winners of Wagatha Christie are the tabloids]

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