Our libel laws are more dysfunctional than Johnny Depp’s marriage

The actor’s attempt to gag a newspaper deserves far more attention than tittle-tattle about who crapped the bed.

Ella Whelan
Topics Free Speech UK

The showdown between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has been a sordid affair – celebrity breakups often are. But this one is particularly bad. Rather than learning who cheated on who, fans and disgusted commentators have been listening to details of who left excrement in who’s bed and who threw a magnum of champagne at who, while trying to figure out what part of this marriage was ever functional.

The ins and outs of celebrity relationships are usually relegated to the sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail website. But Heard and Depp’s spat has become the centre of attention because, despite the mudslinging, this is not a divorce hearing – rather, Depp is using England’s libel laws to sue the Sun for claiming he was a ‘wife beater’ in a 2018 article.

The Depp-Heard soap opera is confusing and chaotic. The pair had already been through divorce proceedings in 2016. Public perception of the case had leant strongly in favour of Heard, who had claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse and had produced photos which seemed to show bruising and scarring after altercations with Depp. Heard had enjoyed the support of post-#MeToo campaigns like #IBelieveHer. She was widely celebrated as a woman who had been brave enough to come forward with her story of abuse.

But it didn’t end there. Depp claimed the story was more complicated. Leaked voice recordings published in the Daily Mail revealed that Heard had also engaged in abusive and violent behaviour in their relationship. It was off the back of this that Depp launched his libel case against the Sun.

Clearly this case is not simply about proving that a publication made incorrect claims about an individual. Heard has travelled to the UK to give her testimony as a witness in the case, and both she and Depp have enjoyed a huge amount of attention during the trial, walking in wearing ‘trademark’ bandanas flanked by screaming fans. Depp, in particular, has treated much of the proceedings as something more like Judge Judy. The court saw evidence of Depp joking about ‘Amber Turd’ being ‘down in the dumps’ after taking a photo of excrement in the marital bed, which he blamed on Heard. The case is supposed to be serious – it’s about the truth of a domestic-abuse allegation, after all – but it has largely been a sordid showtrial.

Some have dubbed the Depp-Heard case the most high-profile libel trial of the 21st century (Lipstadt vs Irving ended in April 2000, so that’s probably just about true). But whether or not the content of this case should be taken seriously, it does remind us how seriously libel laws infringe on free speech. Whether or not Depp did do all the terrible things he is alleged to have done is a matter for his and Heard’s divorce lawyers. But the use of an ancient law by the rich and famous to try to silence what should be a free press is clearly wrong.

Fans of our libel laws point out the hurt and damage caused when allegedly false things are published – using the often-quoted line that ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’. But what they are less comfortable with admitting is the history of seditious libel, which was used to clamp down on political dissenters like Leveller John Lilburne and Chartist William Lovett.

Libel laws have undergone several makeovers – most recently in 2013, when reforms are supposed to have put more emphasis on the need for proof of severe harm to the claimant. But the fact remains that, unlike the belief in innocent until proven guilty in other areas of law, when it comes to a libel case the burden of proof falls on the defendant. In this case, the Sun has to prove that what it published is true, rather than Depp proving it is false.

Libel suits are brought against all kinds of people and publications – but they are most often brought by the rich and famous. Judging by the range of upsetting and embarrassing details brought to light by this case, neither Depp nor Heard is a very nice person. But what is more important are the consequences of a celebrity attempting to gag a newspaper through the use of money and the law. If we believe in a free press – an idea that is much under attack these days – we should call for the abolition of libel laws altogether. They are archaic and undemocratic, and they give tossers far more attention than they deserve.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful, prevailing fear of being outed as a heretic online, in the workplace, or even among friends, for uttering a dissenting thought. This is why we at spiked are stepping up our fight for speech, expanding our output and remaking the case for this most foundational liberty. But to do that we need your help. spiked – unlike so many things these days – is free. We rely on our loyal readers to fund our journalism. So if you want to support us, please do consider becoming a regular donor. Even £5 per month can be a huge help. You can find out more and sign up here. Thank you! And keep speaking freely.

Donate now

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


jamie murray

1st August 2020 at 7:47 am

I can’t believe the number of comments saying how much “i usually enjoy Ella’s articles”etc! Every article of hers i have ever read on any subject comes straight from a 101, modern feminists entitled viewpoint . This article just confirms it, if Ella Whelan had real journalistic integrity then she’d be utterly denouncing Heard for her clear domestic violence in the present and in the past, her lies and general psychotic behaviour in the same kind of terms she’d undoubtedly would had Heard been a man! The underlying dishonesty of feminism and it’s philosophies makes most articles written by feminists unreadable,one just finds oneself marvelling at the self deceptions, in this case it being the clear downplaying of Heard as a very violent nasty piece of work who was clearly a domestic abuser. I am not saying Depp is any less innocent, but name me a modern journalistic outlet/individual who’d be allowed or even attempt to make a sympathetic case for a wife beater?

Kathy Shaidle

31st July 2020 at 5:28 pm

I’ve been saying it for years: Abolish libel laws and re-legalize duelling. Problem solved.

Fred Shred

31st July 2020 at 5:02 pm

Heard has came out of this looking bad. She apparently assaulted a previous girlfriend, admitted to assaulting Depp (but claimed this was to “protect” her sister) – and then the sister herself was caught in a lie – she said that Heard never assaulted her – and then a video of her and her friends is produced, during which Heard’s assault on her sister is discussed in detail. Heard’s previous employees have flatly contradicted Heard’s version of the staircase assault incident. Heard spends 4 times her income per month and was off banging that other self-obsessed flake, Musk, while both of them were suposedly married. She always lookes like she’s about to explode with rage – she has one of those grimace non-smiles, eyes full of contempt. All in all, a sociopathic self-obsessed violent liar. Her original libels were designed to up her lucrative divorce settlement, and she believed he’d not have the guts to take her on in court, banking on the fact that he’d fear the no-win nature of the exposure. And all Whelan can do is tut tut about how bad they both are and accuse Depp of muzzling the press. Cop out. Had it been Heard bringing the case, she’d have been gushing about her heroism. Total double standards, as bad as any of the woke crap you;d read in the Guardian.

Ad Dam

3rd August 2020 at 1:39 pm

Very well said!

Robert Thompson

30th July 2020 at 8:46 pm

Wait wait wait, so because this case is proving that Amber is guilty of libel and physical abuse, our libel laws are dysfunctional? If anything this case proves that our libel laws work exactly as they should. The summary of this article is, ‘Amber’s a woman so everything that comes out of her mouth is the truth and because a court of law is proving that it’s not, our laws are dysfunctional’.

Sweetheart, this is what’s called equality.

It has been proven, MULTIPLE times, that Heard is not only guilty of being physically and emotionally abusive towards Depp, but that she’s perjured herself multiple times, and that she has in fact slandered Depp at every chance she could get.

You apparently have the idea in your head that just because Heard is a woman, that means she can’t do the things she’s done. To keep it simple, you’re wrong. You want there to be two sets of laws, one for men and one for women. You’re displaying a severe lack of intelligence and understanding of how the world works, You need to seek help, and maybe consider going out and getting one of those fancy educations.

Linda Payne

30th July 2020 at 4:10 pm

I’ve been labelled personality disorder, I have to live with that and the associated prejudices for life. If I came to the attention of the media they would have a field day with that label which is only associated with every negative human behaviour there is. It keeps you unemployed and excluded even from further treatment; who can I sue? At least Jonny Depp will be rich and not short of work, when you are working class and powerless any mud sticks and your life is ruined

Mor Vir

30th July 2020 at 12:38 pm

“The court saw evidence of Depp joking about ‘Amber Turd’ being ‘down in the dumps’ after taking a photo of excrement in the marital bed, which he blamed on Heard.”

Thanks are due to Johnny and Amber for the belly laughs. He is still my favourite actor and she seems OK too. If that is the outcome of the ‘trial’ then it has been good for all concerned.

Thanks. xxxxx LOve yOu Johnny and Amber – Jamber. There is no Pirates franchise without Johnny so they need to rethink that one and get Johnny back.

James Knight

30th July 2020 at 12:17 pm

Amber Heard talked after giving her testimony about “My Truth”.

That sums up all that is wrong. Testimony in court is supposed to be “THE truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

James Knight

30th July 2020 at 12:11 pm

Compare it with the Elon Musk case and the difference in the way UK/US law works looks stark.

Brandy Cluster

30th July 2020 at 11:54 am

Depp either knows nothing or cares nothing about the Wilde/Marquis of Queensbury trial and what a shocking outcome that had for the Plaintiff.

W 1V

30th July 2020 at 11:07 am

Same here. I think Whelan’s one of the best journalists around, so I have to think why I don’t agree here.
The tabloid press is very powerful in the UK and can forcefully destroy someone’s reputation. Why then would it be a good idea to get rid of libel laws?
I don’t see any value in that course of action and I see a lot of danger in doing so.
Perhaps if Whelan would suggest an alternative, I could concur but not with what’s merely written here.

Ven Oods

2nd August 2020 at 6:19 pm

“one of the best journalists around”
So, a shame about that ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ mistake. Not terribly professional, for a professional. Doesn’t say much for the proof-reading, either.

Tony Hayers

30th July 2020 at 10:00 am

Worst article I’ve read in a long while. Of course a publication should have to prove what it has published is true.

I’m all for a free press Ella, the freedom to print the fact checked truth – not to make shit up.

Another facet of the article that is so bad – Johnny Depp is not trying to gag the press – he is trying to clear his name, awful example.

Dodgy Geezer

30th July 2020 at 11:52 am

A very good point. The most obvious targets are sometimes, on deeper inspection, not targets at all…

Gerry Mander

30th July 2020 at 10:00 am

Two filthy, drug addled, vile attention-seeking hysterics in search of publicity——all of which is supposedly “good” no matter what…….Ugh!

Weyland Smith

30th July 2020 at 9:19 am

“In this case, the Sun has to prove that what it published is true, rather than Depp proving it is false”
You can’t prove a negative. The article presents the claim of libel as the accusation, rather than the claim of wife beating. It is this that needs to be proven by the accuser. In other words, Depp should be presumed innocent of assault until proven guilty. If proven, Depp loses and pays the costs. If not proven, reputational damage is considered and compensated.
I suggest the author puts at Carl Beech / Tom Watson in place of the newspaper, and Harvey Proctor in place of Depp.

Melissa Jackson

30th July 2020 at 12:42 pm

The worst thing is that this standard is neither unreasonable, nor is it unknown to journalists. The Sun can publish whatever it likes, but their hacks have to be careful in how they do it. If they had said that Depp’s ex-wife has alleged he was violent, then they would be completely covered. That is literally true (ie, it is true that she has made such allegations) and they would simply be reporting that someone else has publicly said something.

This whole trial is effectively over a mistake – Some Sun reporter was lazy and said something stupid, but they can’t ever admit that, nor can they quietly settle.

Mark Pearce

30th July 2020 at 9:18 am

This seems a very solution driven article, “I want total press freedom, how does the Depp case help that?” rather than looking at a balanced argument between freedom and defamation. While everyone is, of course, entitled to their view, I don’t believe many people advocate complete press freedom. The modern age means that once something is in print it is not only permanent but also omnipresent in a matter of seconds. It is, in my view, right that anyone printing falsehoods should be held to account.
Let’s take a very emotive topic, the Hillsborough Disaster. Everyone, even the Sun, accepts that what the Sun printed was incorrect. It upset (and continues to upset) thousands of people yet Ella’s view is that the Sun should be entitled to print what it thinks rather than going through a diligence process of checking its facts. Yes, the Depp-Heard case is, to some extent, a circus and paints both in a terrible light but it should certainly not be seen as an excuse to abandon libel laws.

Jerry Owen

30th July 2020 at 8:14 am

As much as I dislike JK Rowling she was right to take legal action against the group representing kids ( I forget who ) that in my opinion libelled her ( an article on it here last week ) , she was protecting her future income, the slur intended to put a bridge between her and kids, kids being her source of future income ( her wealth is of no importance, the principle is).
Nick Sandmann the American college boy accused of being a racist/nazi Trump supporter for allegedly ( and wrongly ) crowding up to and intimidating an African Indian playing a bongo last year, who’s life was then under threat, has now successfully sued a number of American rags including the Washington Post for millions and rightly so.
He could do this because benevolent people put up the money for him, if this had not happened can you imagine where he would be now.. out of college ( he was kicked out ) and jobless with no future.
The media is not impartial it is not subjective anymore, it is mostly propaganda/activist in much content.
The truth is that if you have money you are better able to protect yourself from untruthful reporting and slander.
The real issue is that people with no money can’t defend themselves against the onslaught of the MSM, Nick Griffin and Tommy Robinson come to mind. having read TR’s book it absolutely clear that the way the media report on him is untrue but he has no money so has to lump it. In fact he has now moved abroad after an arson attack.. well done the media !
As for Depp and Heard it’s just a joke trial no one gives a toss.
The media has hit an all time low it has squandered its reputation and deserves to be libelled as much as is needed to bring it back to some humane level.
As for his new film ‘Piles of the Caribbean’ I guess Ella isn’t going to see it anytime soon !

Bros Bro

31st July 2020 at 12:50 am

Out of all the examples you could have chosen, Nick Griffin and Tommy Robinson.
I think you’ve found your level.

jamie murray

1st August 2020 at 8:08 am

TR- a braver man than you’ll ever be. Not as urbane as a Douglas Murray, a bit rough round the edges and doesn’t play the slimy politicians game of pretending mass immigration is all a wonderful, multi culti utopia. It’s the telling of that truth that offends people like you and because what he says in many cases [a major point being that the MSM deliberately downplay, obscure or downright ignore the many negatives with muslim immigration in particular, such as organised rape gangs] is unarguably true and challenges your ideological viewpoint what then is your reply, the almost tiresomely meaningless “racist”, used to avoid proper discussions that could be extremely uncomfortable for our ruling elites. As for Nick Griffin, he can and should be criticised for many things, but he warned loudly over 20 years ago regarding mass exploitation and abuse of working class white girls at the hands of Muslims, what did people like you say?, well we all know what you said to stop any debate-“racist”. So who’s really the despicable ones here?

Bros Bro

31st July 2020 at 1:38 am

Somehow I doubt that Tommeh is as broke as he says he is. Hate does seem to pay well these days. Not a lot of people could move abroad so quickly if they were supposedly attacked in a similar fashion

Jerry Owen

31st July 2020 at 11:58 am

Put your money where your loudmouth gob is and give me evidence TR is a wealthy man?
And BTW most countries are cheaper than England to live in.
What a prat you are.

Tony Rutter

30th July 2020 at 6:57 am

I usually like Ella’s pieces, but not this one. Only a woman could be oblivious to the harm that being labelled a wife-beater will inflict on a man. It not only highlights how female privilege is subconsciously accepted, but also shows complete ignorance to the world of hatred that men (particularly white men) face today.

W 1V

30th July 2020 at 11:12 am

I don’t think she’s oblivious to the damage inflicted to a man by his character assassination, mate. Don’t play the woman card with her when she’s written to many good articles on feminism.
Other than that I agree with your statement that this piece’s logic doesn’t add up.

Tony Rutter

30th July 2020 at 1:00 pm

I didn’t “play the woman card”, I’m merely pointing out that unless you’ve stood in someone elses shoes you can never truly know how it feels. And, yes, women do hold a position of ‘privilege’ in society today – as much as I hate the word. No cards being played, just an honest observation from someone that doesn’t agree with the popular group-think.

Ad Dam

3rd August 2020 at 1:44 pm

No she’s not oblivious; she seems to think women should be able to get away with it and the man is somehow wrong, the very laws are wrong, that he’s fighting back against such a slur? Especially with so much evidence that the woman in this case was the violent one.

Mark Houghton

30th July 2020 at 6:54 am

So should we just let any newspaper make any claim which damages anyone and they face no pushback. I wonder how Ella would feel if a national newspaper claimed that she was a paedophile?

Weyland Smith

30th July 2020 at 2:54 pm

According to her logic, she would consider it only right that the onus be on her ” … proving it is false”

Bros Bro

30th July 2020 at 6:44 am

This is simply the most shallow article I have ever read on Spi ked. Is free speech more important than fairness and justice?
Public sentiment is certainly supporting De pp. A husband is not a “wi fe bea ter” in a marriage where the wife has allegedly done most of the beating. The whole free speech argument is a smoke screen for bitter, directors of traffic from social media to online news, (modern day jour nalists) who dont get laid enough to bes mirch amongst others those who are wealthy, talented, famous and successful.
When free speech dishonestly causes harm to an individual by making fal se alleg ations, an ap ology and comp ensation is the least they should expect in a fair and just society

Brandy Cluster

30th July 2020 at 11:55 am

“Alleged”. Precisely, and this trial will PROVE nothing but it will result in reputational destruction for both parties.

Bros Bro

30th July 2020 at 6:43 am


Jerry Owen

30th July 2020 at 8:55 am

Your are indeed.

Bros Bro

30th July 2020 at 6:42 am

This is simply the most shallow article I have ever read on Spiked. Is free speech more important than fairness and justice?
Public sentiment is certainly supporting De pp. A husband is not a “wife beater” in a marriage where the wife has allegedly done most of the beating. The whole free speech argument is a smoke screen for bitter, directors of traffic from social media to online news, (modern day journalists) who dont get laid enough to besmirch amongst others those who are wealthy, talented, famous and successful.
When free speech dishonestly causes harm to an individual by making false allegations, an apology and compensation is the least they should expect in a fair and just society.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.

Deplorables — a spiked film