Turn down the sound in Court 13 and stare upon its cold stone walls; its towering leaded light windows; its ornate oak panelling and wrought iron chandeliers. Observe the grandiose men in their gowns and wigs and one sees a fully formed tableau of an entirely Dickensian world. At the end of cases that have borne every outward resemblance to this one, it would not have been uncommon to see an unfortunate man transported to Botany Bay for life for the theft of a loaf of bread.
The grand oak clock high up on its walls has turned through 150 years or more. If it contained a photographic camera, the roll of film within would scarcely have recorded the change of actual centuries of human life.
That the set of this mad drama has not been redressed since the days of the workhouse only makes the script more startling. The clipped tones of public school barristers have rung around this room forever. They have never before been called in to arbitrate over what amounts to very little more than a very high stakes Instagram bitchfest that’s somehow been allowed to run up a bill of three million quid or more.
Certain phrases punctuate the memory. At one point, the judge, Ms Justice Steyn (who is more used to presiding over the fates of Guantanamo Bay inmates, or the possibly illegal sales of arms between nation states) was asked: “Does her ladyship appreciate the difference between Instagram stories and posts?”
She has sat up there for around 35 full hours, spread over seven days, looking rarely anything other than expressionless as she has heard who was “buzzing,” who was “fuming,” who’d “unfollowed” who, who’d “blocked” the other. She has heard – deep breath now – all about “the boob jobs,” the “resting bitch face”, and the “secret to England’s success being getting your leg over”.
And she has also heard who had said of the other, “OMG! What a c***!” And all this played out against the usual celebrity Instagram background mood music of the McDonald’s “Mum Of The Year” awards and some kind of pyjama deal with Matalan.
It is worth observing that three million quid’s worth of libel trial doesn’t happen by accident. It is, undoubtedly, a clear mark of societal progress that the case’s lead participants were not born in possession of so much as a sniff of the cash that all this will cost them. This kind of very flowery justice has not been available to such people for very long.
(The same, utterly inevitably, cannot be said of the lawyers who will receive said funds. One more pleasing vignette, on the case’s final day, was when the Rooneys’ legal team apologised on the Rooneys’ behalf for them not being there. They had gone on holiday, having been advised – by their legal team – that the case would be concluded by now, which it self-evidently was not.)
As it happens, it was not long after this courthouse was built that newspapers set themselves up on Fleet Street, which begins just a few yards from the court’s front entrance. They set up there precisely because of their proximity to the courthouses, and the drama to be found there (though the scandalous stuff mainly happened not at the Royal Courts of Justice, but down the other end of the street at the Old Bailey).
Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney: such people are the modern stars of what were once the society pages. It is their lives that people now covet, not the daugher of the third marchioness of wherever’s, and that is no bad thing, even if the somewhat trashy reality of it is demeaned by the same people who then voraciously consume it.
It is also something of a landmark moment for the very small number of people who are into UK libel law. We are now decades into a new reality in which all people are media barons, and everything that is required to run a media empire sits in a person’s pocket. This case, of course, involves the leaking of information to a major newspaper, but that is almost irrelevant. It could have been about anything. The potential libel happened on Instagram, the publisher was not a newspaper but a private individual. What a mess.
It is not easy to speculate on who will win a libel trial. Get it wrong and you’ve probably committed libel yourself. But it is easy to observe that absolutely no one is going to win this.
The judge has already set an upper limit of 70 per cent of the winner’s costs to be payable by the losing party. She has also indicated that the damages that might be payable on top of that will range between £15,000 and £70,000. Given costs are already thought to be well over a million each, Wagatha Christie is a six-figure lottery in which a ticket costs 10 times more than the jackpot payout.
If Rebekah Vardy wins, it will be because Coleen Rooney has been unable to prove that she knew for sure it was “Rebekah Vardy’s ……… account” that had leaked the small number of fake stories in question.
But by bringing a very expensive libel action to claim that she would never leak stories to The Sun, and persistently refusing to settle out of court, she has also, slightly inadvertently, shared a massive trove of WhatsApp messages with the world. And those WhatsApp messages seem to have confirmed, as far as the public is concerned, that she is precisely the kind of person she has angrily claimed not to be.
In the wake of Rooney’s Wagatha Christie bombshell, the now so-called “reveal post”, Rebekah Vardy’s (almost as famous) reply contained the words, “not being funny but I don’t need the money”. Three years later, and a very grand court has had her WhatsApp messages read out to it, one of which concerns the passing on of private information to The Sun, and clearly states: “I want paying for this x.”
She has claimed throughout that she didn’t know her agent, Caroline Watt, was leaking stories to The Sun. And she has sat there while one of Watt’s messages to her has been read out, on the subject of a story about Rooney being leaked to The Sun, which simply contains the words: “It was me.”
And she has also had to sit there while intricate details of panicked WhatsApp conversations with her agent have been read out, detailing her attempts to march the England players wives and girlfriends out the front of a Russian restaurant at the 2018 World Cup – where she had arranged for a paparazzi photographer to be hiding in the bushes. Jamie Vardy has retired from international football. He will not be going to the forthcoming World Cup, and neither will his wife. One suspects that is just as well.
Rebekah Vardy denies these allegations. Her denials, at least in the words of the barrister cross-examining her, appear to depend on her WhatsApp conversations having been conducted, “not in English, but in a kind of jokey code, in which words don’t mean what they say”.
She has, in effect, it seems to me, sued someone for calling her a duck, only for long years of WhatsApp conversations to be read out in court, none of which appear to say anything other than “quack”.
Her accuser, meanwhile – Coleen Rooney – has claimed to have been taken by surprise by the reaction to her post. That she never imagined it would become such a big deal. This is no doubt true. She certainly didn’t think it would end up here, with her and her husband sitting in a witness box in the High Court, swearing by almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But it’s pointless to suggest anything other than that its 13 magisterial sentences, each with the poise and craft of John Grisham at his very finest, were both written and then posted in such a way as to achieve maximum virality. Which they certainly did.
It was, in social media terms, nothing less than a work of art. And she knew it, too.
The Wagatha Christie trial has no jury, which has liberated the 12 seats of the jury box for use by journalists covering the case. It could hardly be more appropriate. It may take months to decide the winner. But it is the thousands of words that have flown out of fingers and into laptops in those little seats that have very much decided this matter already in the minds of those who care.
It will be up to Ms Justice Steyn to decide on whose doormat the terrifying bill will land. But at the end of her seven-day education in the inner workings of Instagram, she, like everyone else, will surely have already worked out that the real costs were racked up long ago – in the DMs and the mentions that will be lighting up about all this forevermore.