LONDON — It started as an Instagram-linked feud between the spouses of two British soccer stars and turned into a libel suit that provided a welcome distraction for a nation in turmoil.
The High Court on Friday ended the long-running legal wrangle by ruling against plaintiff Rebekah Vardy, saying she had not been defamed by her former friend Coleen Rooney.
In the verdict, Judge Karen Steyn ruled that the reputational damage suffered by Ms Vardy lacked what she described as “the sting of defamation”. For that reason, she said in a written decision released Friday, “the matter is closed.”
The judge also reprimanded Ms Vardy, who sued Ms Rooney in June 2020, writing that she had regularly leaked information about her former friend to the press, adding that “significant parts of her evidence were not believable”.
“There were numerous occasions where the Claimant’s evidence was manifestly inconsistent with contemporary documentary evidence, evasive or implausible,” Ms Steyn wrote in the ruling.
With its combination of low stakes and high melodrama, the dispute between Ms Vardy and Ms Rooney was not the trial of the century. But the case drew months of heated tabloid coverage at a time when Britain was navigating a tenacious pandemic and one struggling economy while his Prime Minister was on the ropes.
Ms Vardy, the wife of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, and Ms Rooney, who is married to former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, belong to a group known as WAGs, a common tabloid acronym, although sexist, for the “wives and girlfriends” of professional athletes, especially Premier League footballers.
In 2019, Ms Rooney suspected that a follower of her private Instagram account was selling information about her, gleaned from her posts, to The Sun, a London tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch known for its saucy celebrity coverage. To uncover the alleged backer, Ms Rooney set a trap: she made her Instagram stories visible only to Ms Vardy and used the account to provide false information about herself. Then she waited to see if it ended up in the press.
At the end of her month-long sting operation, Ms Rooney claimed Ms Vardy was the culprit. She made the accusation in a statement on social media in the fall of 2019 that was widely shared. Due to her detective tactics, Mrs. Rooney became known as “Wagatha Christie”, a mixture of WAG and Agatha Christie, the mystery writer of the 20th century.
Ms Vardy quickly denied that she was responsible for the leak. She then said that she had hired forensic computer scientists to determine if anyone else had access to their Instagram account. After mediation failed, Ms Vardy filed a libel claim against Ms Rooney in the High Court, which oversees high-profile civil cases in Britain.
In May, he went to court. The proceeding, officially called Vardy v. Rooney, became known as the Wagatha Christie trial. The term was so common that it appeared in a crawl on Sky News right next to ‘War in Ukraine’.
Tabloid photographers and cable correspondents flocked to the steps outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice for the nine-day event, which proved to be as much a fashion show as a thriller.
Ms Vardy, 40, arrived in an assortment of finery including a buttery yellow tweed suit by Alessandra Rich and an Alexander McQueen blazer. On her left foot, Ms Rooney, 36, wore a medical boot, an unsightly plastic device she paired with a Chanel loafer, a Gucci loafer and a Gucci mule. She had fractured herself in a fall at home.
Ms. Vardy testified for three days. “I didn’t give any information to a newspaper,” she said in questioning at the start of her testimony. “I’ve been called a leaker, and that’s not nice.”
The trial had plenty of TV-worthy twists. It was revealed in court that laptops had been lost and WhatsApp messages between Ms Vardy and her agent, Caroline Watt – which apparently disparaged Ms Rooney – had mysteriously disappeared. Ms Vardy’s lawyer added that Ms Watt had “unfortunately” dumped an iPhone containing WhatsApp messages in the North Sea. Ms Rooney’s solicitor, David Sherborne, responded that the incident appeared to have resulted in the concealment of evidence.
“The story is really fishy, no pun intended,” he said.
Ms Vardy told the court she could “neither confirm nor deny” what exactly happened to her missing digital data. At another point, she began a response with the phrase ‘if I’m being honest’, which had Ms Rooney’s lawyer cracking up: ‘I hope you’re being honest because you’re sitting on the witness stand .”
The pieces of false information that Ms Rooney included on the Instagram account visible only to Ms Vardy were not exactly upsetting. As part of her sting operation, Ms Rooney claimed she and her husband were going to Mexico for ‘sex selection treatment’, because Mr Rooney wanted their fifth child to be a girl. She also said the basement of the couple’s new home near Manchester, estimated at $25million, was flooded. These and other ersatz facts have been part of The Sun’s coverage of all things WAG.
Although Ms Vardy has repeatedly said she had nothing to do with the leaks – and went so far as to mount an expensive legal campaign in what turned out to be a futile attempt to prove her lack of involvement – the judge handling the case was unimpressed. with his claims. In his analysis of Mrs Vardy, Ms Steyn noted ‘a degree of self-deception on her part about the extent to which she was involved’.
The case has garnered so much media attention because WAGs – like the cast of the “Real Housewives” franchise in the US – feature prominently in the British cultural imagination. They are constantly photographed. They star in reality shows and have their own fast fashion lines and false eyelash businesses. A TV series inspired by their shopping habits, feuds and love life, “Footballers’ Wives”, was a hit in the early 2000s.
The WAGs had a breakthrough in 2006, when a group of them hosted the resort town of Baden-Baden during that year’s World Cup, which was played in stadiums across the Germany. The ringleader was Victoria Beckham, who rose to fame as Posh Spice in the Spice Girls before marrying midfield great David Beckham. Also on the trip: Coleen McLoughlin, 20, who was dating Mr Beckham’s teammate Mr Rooney and would later marry him.
The tabloids ate it. Reports from Baden-Baden said WAGs were singing “We Are the Champions” from a hotel balcony, dancing on tables and drinking champagne, vodka and Red Bull until the early hours. During the day, the women went on epic shopping sprees and sunbathed as the paparazzi walked away.
When England lost in the quarter-finals to Portugal, some sports experts unfairly blamed the WAGs for the loss. Predictably, the tabloids that had made them into celebrities tried to bring them down. “The Empty World of WAGs” was the title of a piece that wiggles your fingers in The Daily Mail.
Years later, Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy played together for England, adding to the delightful awkwardness of recent legal proceedings.
The trial fits perfectly into a culture that sometimes revels in images of how silly it can be – see also the popular TV show ‘Love Island’. He also touched on betrayal and lies, which defined themes in Britain as Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced fines for breaking lockdown rules, then announced he would quit after his party expelled him for other deceptions.
The trial also presented the complexities of the British class system. Online jokes by those following the case have centered on Oxford-trained lawyers reading aloud text messages filled with profane terms from women who are often dismissed as shallow or “chavvy”, to borrow a word Ms Vardy used in reference to a cousin of Mr. Rooney’s.
Unlike this year’s other high profile celebrity court battle, Depp v. understood, these proceedings were not broadcast live, which added to the appeal. The old-fashioned courtroom sketches made the parties look like a potato, the moon and, according to one commentator, “Norman Bates’ mother”.
The performances gave the whole affair a lo-fi air, which was fitting, given that the joy of WAGs has always been how un-Hollywood they are. And in the recently concluded trial, Ms Vardy and, to a lesser extent, Ms Rooney delivered everything Britain ever wanted from WAGs – drama and backstabbing, with designer bags swinging when ‘they entered the fray.
For those who missed the trial or can’t get enough of it, fret not: British TV channel Channel 4 announced this week that it has planned a two-part docudrama based on the setback.