We Are What We Tweet: Wagatha, Social Media, and the Death of Privacy | Straight
MDuring his three-day cross-examination of Rebekah Vardy, Coleen Rooney’s theatrical attorney David Sherborne posed the question, “Is this a joke or is this serious, Mrs. Vardy?” You can’t have it both ways. Serious or joking – what is it, Mrs. Vardy?
The question was specifically about Vardy’s motivation for apparently wanting to flee to the Sun the story of her footballer husband’s former teammate, Danny Drinkwater, who crashed his car with two female passengers and spent a night in a police cell (“I want to pay for that,” Vardy told his agent, Caroline Watt). Even at this point in the proceedings, however, you couldn’t help but think that Sherborne’s investigation also applied to the whole spectacle of the eight-day trial of “Wagatha Christie” (or “The Scousetrap,” as some prefer).
Vardy’s lawsuit against Rooney, the claim that she was defamed by her colleague WAG’s “undercover operation” which allegedly exposed Vardy as the source of “private” information leaked to the tabloid press, concerned, on some level, the ridiculous weaponization of extreme trivialities. At the same time, however, it was a £3million case that occupied some of the sharpest legal minds in the country for too many months and provided, for some newspapers, a week of news on the front page at a time of economic turbulence. and international crisis.
Summing up last Thursday afternoon, Vardy’s solicitor, Hugh Tomlinson QC, suggested that “from Ms Vardy’s perspective, whatever public entertainment is offered, this is an extremely serious case”.
If this claim were true, the import could be attributed to the distorting effects of social media on received ideas of privacy and defamation, and the money-making ways in which these concerns now take up so much public – and legal – space. Whatever the merits of Vardy’s case, there were a few moments where you feared not just for her, but for the online state of the nation. One such moment was Sherborne’s review of Vardy’s response to one of Rooney’s private Instagram posts, a photo of her driving her children to school in the rain.
Vardy has, as she pointed out, five children in her own household, so her mornings are a little crazy. Even so, Sherborne countered, she was sufficiently attached to her phone and her privileged access to other lives, to examine Rooney’s photograph, in obsessive detail, at 8 a.m. Upon seeing this message, Vardy immediately texted his agent Caroline Watt to warn her that one of Rooney’s children did not appear to be wearing a seatbelt. Watt, with access through Vardy’s Instagram account, had already timed the photo herself. There was, in Sherborne’s account, a detailed discussion between the two of them as to whether this represented a story that might be of interest to the Sun.
Listening to this exchange (Vardy defended it as mere gossip of friends) was a lot like hearing the two most unbalanced parents at the school gates discussing the mother (“that bad bitch”) that they loved to hate the most. It was also a reminder that the bar for what might constitute a “story” in our age of social media has fallen very low. Sherborne was effective in showing how, in Vardy’s well-known dealings with the popular press, she had come to understand that a tale could be made – and sold – out of anything. Whatever her denials about the details of the case, it was clear she would have done a natural tabloid hack.
Tomlinson, Vardy’s lawyer, while denying that his client was the proven source of the leaks in question, made an additional argument. There was, he claimed, no justification for Rooney’s desire to expose Vardy’s alleged betrayal, as the information leaked was in no way confidential. The stories in the Sun — about “flooded basements and minor car accidents” — did not involve state secrets or corporate fraud. These were things that could have been happily shared among Rooney’s friends. The case, he argued, was therefore not about exposed harmful intimacies but about “personal trust”. Rooney’s concern, he said, and his “unfair” publication of his suspicions about Vardy, were simply, in his words, that someone “provided this scum of a newspaper of things to write about the Rooneys again”.
Tomlinson was right in some ways. This whole saga was less about privacy and more about privacy settings. Detective work, on all sides, involved not fingerprints, paper trails and forensics, but zip files, media exports and internal links. In the pre-digital age, this could have been resolved by both parties coming together to clear the air, or over the phone. But what started on social media, inevitably perhaps, has escalated exponentially on social media. Watching the fallout in Court 13 of the Royal Courts of Justice, or the sole overflowing media room, had to be reminded that one of the main mottos of our time is who discusses what to whom.
One of the side effects of all of this has been to shed light on some of the ways famous journalists have retained access to their blood – the secrets of the rich and famous – ever since the “dark arts”, including the phone hacking, were banned. When the tabloids first decided that gossip rather than news would be their business – you can trace back to when Piers Morgan rose from overseeing the Sun‘s Bizarre gossip to the editorial staff
of DailyMirror – it was in their interest to create fantastic worlds to tell. The royal family was the prototype of what they called “fairy tales”. The cheap rivalries of millionaire footballer wives have become a more reliable source of such stories.
The question then was, how to put them upright? With celebrity voicemails banned, addictive habits on Instagram and other social media came to their rescue. Despite not wanting details about her family in the papers, Coleen Rooney never really questioned her need to send her followers frequent updates, curated edits to her fabulous style of life. After all, everyone has.
What might once have been found by rummaging through people’s trash cans or divulging their personal details, was now there almost in plain sight. The temptation for someone with the requisite access to these tales to resell them, Sherborne argued, was undeniable. Disloyalty can be exchanged for favorable cover or simply for money.
The curious dance between celebrities and their press officers and certain newspapers was at the heart of his business. the Sun the journalists mentioned had chosen not to appear in court, claiming protection of sources, although journalist Amy Brookbanks presumably would have liked the opportunity to counter Watt’s claim that: “She does everything I tell her asks, and gets stories changed that she didn’t even write.”
It’s this sort of thing that Vardy’s husband Jamie, speaking on the court steps, described as his “media work”. At one point, Vardy and Sherborne got bogged down in the details of a case in which a married footballer he knew had fathered a child with another woman. “If you believe everything that is written in the Sunlaughed Vardy. “Is it funny, Mrs. Vardy?” Sherborne asked.
Listening to Sherborne’s questions, it was tempting to believe that Vardy’s insider knowledge of the celebrity world “game” had skewed other aspects of his life as well. Large portions of his testimony were devoted to attempts to define words which, in the age of social media, seemed to have acquired new connotations. “She refused to accept the ordinary meaning of the words, including ‘leak’,” Sherborne despaired, of the litigant’s difficulties in acknowledging that the word involved selling private information to the press. There seemed to be similar issues regarding the precise differences between ‘monitoring’, ‘surveillance’ and ‘harassment’. “The strange language you have with Ms Watt on WhatsApp that is not English,” Sherborne said at one point.
Watt was apparently not healthy enough to testify at trial. His absence – and that of the contents of his phone, which had been inadvertently dumped in the North Sea, shortly after Rooney’s side requested it in the disclosure – was, it was suggested, “ as Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark”. The implication of Vardy’s case, as it unfolded, was that she likely blamed her former friend and agent for leaking the “fake” stories about Rooney, despite being “too faithful” to explicitly express this conclusion. “Ms Vardy obviously made mistakes,” admitted Tomlinson. “Perhaps the most serious thing was to trust Mrs. Watt…”
In the absence of the agent and the contents of his phone, Sherborne had the closest thing to a smoking gun proving that Vardy knew Watt was leaking stories from Rooney’s account, lay in one of his responses to a warning that Rooney tweeted, before finally naming his prime suspect: “The car accident story is completely false,” Rooney wrote. “Someone on my private Instagram is selling stories… It’s sad to think that someone I’ve agreed to follow me is betraying for money or to have a relationship with the press.”
“It wasn’t someone she trusted, it was me.” Watt wrote bluntly to Vardy. If Vardy had admitted seeing that message, Sherborne concluded, the game would be over. In fact, she said it was one of the few times in her life when she apparently wasn’t paying attention to her phone. She said she missed that post because she was bathing her kids watching Gemma Collins in ice dancing.
It remains to be seen whether the long-suffering judge, Mrs Justice Steyn, will find enough evidence to support Vardy’s claim that she was wrongfully wronged by Rooney. What is certain is that Vardy’s long days in court have apparently achieved the exact opposite of what she hoped for, namely an end to the abuse and mockery she has received on Twitter and elsewhere. “If Ms. Vardy had known her conversations would be known to the world, these are things she would not have said,” Tomlinson noted.
As this lawsuit has once again pointed out in all too painful detail, you can have all the privacy protocols in the world, but the things said on social media have a habit of taking on a whimsical life of their own.