Johnny Depp lost his libel court case against The Sun - here’s why

On November 2 Johnny Depp lost his libel cases against the Sun Newspaper over an article which labelled him a “wife beater”.

The tabloid claimed that Depp had assaulted his ex-wife Amber Heard, which the actor denied. The Sun insisted the claim was accurate.

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Judge Mr Justice Nicol ruled that The Sun had proved that the claim made by The Sun was “substantially true”. 

The blockbuster court case, which was the biggest English libel trial of the 21st century, saw both Mr Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard share deeply personal details about their tempestuous relationship, while the actor answered questions about his drink and drug use.

How did the case unfold?

The case stems from a claim made by The Sun author Dan Wootton that Johnny Depp is “a wife beater”. 

In an April 2018 column in The Sun, Mr Wootton asked how Harry Potter author JK Rowling could be “genuinely happy” that Mr Depp had been cast in the latest film in the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise amid the allegations by Ms Heard.

Mr Depp denied having been violent to Ms Heard, and claimed the article included quotes from alleged victims of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein in order to “finish his career” by linking the allegations against him to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

NGN defended the article as true and said Mr Depp was “controlling and verbally and physically abusive towards Ms Heard, particularly when he was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs” between early 2013 and May 2016, when the couple split.

Mr Depp and Ms Heard attended the 16-day trial, which featured days of high drama, claims of brutal violence and sensational revelations about their tempestuous relationship.

The court heard evidence from both stars, along with friends and relatives of the couple, and several former and current employees.

Mr Depp spent around 20 hours in the witness box over five days, facing intense questioning about his Hollywood lifestyle, his use of drink and drugs, allegations of violence, and his friendships and associations with famous faces, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and musician Sir Elton John.

What did the judge say?

In the ruling, Mr Justice Nicol said: “I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard.”

The judge said he was “not persuaded” that an alleged “incident of violence” in Los Angeles in December 2014 “constituted a physical assault of Ms Heard by Mr Depp”.

He also said he could not rule that an alleged incident in LA in November 2015 had been proven because it was not put to Mr Depp in cross-examination.

However, he found that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence relied on by NGN did occur.

The judge found that Mr Depp put Ms Heard “in fear of her life” during what the actress described as a “three-day hostage situation” in Australia in March 2015.

He also said he accepted that a further “confidential” allegation made against Mr Depp regarding the incident in Australia had happened.

Mr Justice Nicol found that Ms Heard was in fear for her life during incidents on the Eastern and Oriental Express in South East Asia in August 2015 and again in LA in December of the same year.

Mr Justice Nicol also said “a recurring theme in Mr Depp’s evidence was that Ms Heard had constructed a hoax and that she had done this as an ‘insurance policy’”, and that Ms Heard was a “gold-digger”.

But he added: “I do not accept this characterisation of Ms Heard.”

The judge also said that Ms Heard donating her seven million US dollar (£5.4 million) settlement to charity was “hardly the act one would expect of a gold-digger”.

How has Depp responded? 

In a statement after the ruling, Mr Depp’s solicitor, Jenny Afia, from Schillings law firm, said: “This decision is as perverse as it is bewildering.

“Most troubling is the judge’s reliance on the testimony of Amber Heard, and corresponding disregard of the mountain of counter-evidence from police officers, medical practitioners, her own former assistant, other unchallenged witnesses and an array of documentary evidence which completely undermined the allegations, point by point.

“All of this was overlooked. The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal this decision.”

How will case loss affect Depp’s career? 

Mark Stephens, a partner at Howard Kennedy and expert in reputation management, told the PA news agency that the case would be  “immensely damaging” for his career.

“This is something which could have been dealt with quietly out of the public spotlight.

“People at the break-up of a relationship never show themselves off to the best advantage but this was obviously a toxic relationship and it was obviously something which would have been better for both parties not to have had it unpicked in public.

“I think it is something he could have chalked up to his bad boy image and moved on but he has drawn attention to two things – one, his demons and his monster, which effectively the judge finds is when he abused Amber Heard, and also the amount of drugs that he’s taking.

He added: “I think the only way he recovers is by admitting the problems that he obviously has and getting treatment, then I think Hollywood and the public will forgive him.

“But it’s very difficult to see how children’s authors like JK Rowling or children’s entertainment companies like Disney can continue to promote somebody who is a wife-beating drug addict and that I think is going to be the problem that he has to deal with.

“I said right at the beginning that is what he was gambling with and he didn’t need to do it, this is another example of self-destruction.”

Filming is currently underway for the third film in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series in which Depp plays villain Gellert Grindelwald.