World

Trial Over ‘Wagatha Christie’ Feud Begins in U.K.

LONDON — It began as a dramatic feud between the famous wives of two even more famous English soccer players over a covert social media operation that one said proved the other was leaking personal stories about her to a tabloid.

That feud moved to trial on Tuesday at the High Court in London, in a high-profile case over whether one of the wives, Coleen Rooney, 36, had defamed the other, Rebekah Vardy, 40, with a Twitter post in 2019 that accused her of leaking material from Ms. Rooney’s Instagram account to The Sun newspaper.

The case, which has captured public attention in Britain and has been an obsession of the country’s tabloids for years, brings together the world of celebrity gossip and civil defamation law, driven by powerhouse lawyers on both sides.

It is also expected to be costly for both of the women, who have refused to reach a settlement out of court. The court case is expected to last about a week.

Cases of libel in the High Court are rare, said Athalie Matthews, a lawyer for Farrer & Co. who specializes in defamation, adding that lawyers often advise against it. “Not only is the financial cost of taking a case to court huge, but the reputational cost can also be enormous, whether the claimant wins or loses.”

The case has become widely known as the “Wagatha Christie” affair, playing off the acronym WAG, commonly used in Britain to refer to the wives and girlfriends of soccer players, and the detective novelist Agatha Christie — a homage to Ms. Rooney’s apparent resourcefulness in her quest to discover who was responsible for the leaks.

Coleen Rooney, wife of the former soccer star Wayne Rooney, in London on Tuesday.Credit…Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The public sparring started in October 2019 after Ms. Rooney, a television personality and the wife of the former soccer star Wayne Rooney, said on Twitter that a follower on her personal Instagram account (she has a public account with nearly a million followers) was sharing the information with The Sun.

“After a long time of trying to figure out who it could be, for various reasons, I had a suspicion,” she wrote. She then started an undercover operation that involved posting false stories about her life. Ms. Rooney gradually reduced the number of people who could see her account, down to one, to see if the stories would become public, and thus identify the culprit, she said.

That account, she said she concluded, belonged to Rebekah Vardy, another media personality, who was married to the English soccer player Jamie Vardy.

In a Guardian opinion piece, Emma Garland, a culture writer, described the attraction of the scandal for people in Britain — and around the world — as “the perfect storm of everyday pettiness and high-profile drama.” She added: “There is the knowledge that, if you had £3 million to escalate a personal beef to the highest possible court, you could find yourself on the stand too.” Three million pounds is about $3.7 million.

Ms. Vardy has denied leaking the stories, and in 2020 began civil proceedings against Ms. Rooney for defaming her.

Hugh Tomlinson, Ms. Vardy’s lawyer, said in court on Tuesday, according to local news media present, that there was no evidence that she was responsible for the leaks, and he accused Ms. Rooney of “reveling” in masterminding a situation that had exposed his client to verbal abuse from the public while pregnant.

Adding to the mystery is the involvement of Caroline Watt, Ms. Vardy’s agent, who, according to revelations in court, accidentally dropped a phone in the sea that Ms. Rooney said had contained WhatsApp messages related to the case. Mr. Tomlinson said in court that Ms. Watt had withdrawn a witness statement certifying that she had not been the one responsible for leaking the stories.

Ms. Vardy believed it was possible, Mr. Tomlinson said, that Ms. Watt had leaked some of the stories involving Ms. Rooney.

“The case illustrates the predominant role now played by social media in building and ending reputations,” said Ms. Matthews, the defamation lawyer. She added that while in the past high-profile figures sued over front-page newspaper stories to which they took exception, they now cared just as much about conversations on social media platforms.

She said it also reinforced the fact that anyone posting a damaging statement about someone on social media could be sued for damages under English law.

The reputational stakes could be high for Ms. Vardy, who risked being exposed as a liar if the court ruled against her, Ms. Matthews said.

“Neither side has given any ground and both have top lawyers on board, so it could go either way,” she said. She added that while some people thought the case was “crazy,” others admired the resolve of both women.

“Underestimate a WAG at your peril,” she said.

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