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Johnny Depp: How the cost of libel case will run far beyond legal fees

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Published on 02 November 2020

Johnny Depp
Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp has lost his libel case against the Sun newspaper over an article that called him a "wife beater".

Mr Depp, 57, sued the paper after it claimed he assaulted his ex-wife Amber Heard, which he denies. The Sun said the article was accurate.

Here University of Sunderland media law expert Carole Watson discusses how the case is a watershed for journalism students preparing to enter the industry

 

It’s not often someone famous for playing Willy Wonka plays a major part of my media law lectures.

“But the long awaited Johnny Depp v the Sun libel judgement couldn’t have arrived at a better time for journalism students who need to learn about defamation and the defences they have to protect their stories.

“In a nutshell, libel is unjustified attacks on someone’s reputation and people can sue newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and websites for damages, often running into thousands of pounds. The legal costs of such a case can run into millions.

“Now a judge has decided the Sun did prove in court Depp is a wifebeater, his reputation (subject to any appeal) is shredded. JK Rowling will have a tricky decision to make whether to continue with him in her new Fantastic Beasts movie. Brands such as Dior will shy away from using him to promote their products. His legal bill (he will have to pay The Sun’s costs too) will be eye watering.

“The truth defence is a difficult one for the media to use. You need to prove in court, “on the balance of probabilities”, that what you have published is substantially true.

“The Sun famously used it successfully in 1994 when EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth sued them over a page one story titled TV Kathy’s “sex romp” fury.

“You need credible witnesses and evidence, and the Sun brought more than just Amber Heard’s word against Depp’s. The fact domestic violence usually occurs behind closed doors must also have been a factor for Mr Justice Nicol when ruling he believed the story.

“The tabloid did not have to prove Depp assaulted his then wife “beyond reasonable doubt” - that is the criminal standard of proof. This is a civil case.

“Many newspapers, suffering falling sales and advertising, shy away from defending their journalists and their stories to save potentially huge legal bills. It’s easier to cut your losses and run.

“So the Depp cases is a great lesson in press freedom, for my students, and that some will stick to their guns in the face of the powerful and famous.”

 

Carole Watson is a senior lecture in media law and a member of the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ media law examinations board. She has contributed media law chapters to several books.

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