Rebekah Vardy has brought a libel action against Coleen Rooney only as a last resort to “vindicate her reputation”, the high court was told at a preliminary hearing of the high-profile dispute between the wives of two England footballers.
Vardy has faced “widespread hostility and abuse” as a result of being accused of leaking details about the private life of her former friend, her barrister told the court on Thursday.
Last year Rooney claimed Vardy had been leaking stories from her private Instagram account to the Sun newspaper. Rooney, 34, is married to Wayne Rooney, and Vardy, 38, to Jamie Vardy.
Rooney claimed she had spent five months slowly reducing the number of people who could see her updates on Instagram stories until only Vardy’s account remained. Rooney then posted a fictitious announcement on Instagram reporting that the basement of her new house had been flooded.
When the flood appeared as a news story in the Sun, she went public with the accusation that Vardy was responsible for leaking personal information to the press, earning Rooney the nickname “Wagatha Christie” for her sleuthing.
Opening the hearing before Mr Justice Warby in the high court, Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Vardy, said: “Mrs Rooney has something like 2 million followers. The post [by Rooney accusing Vardy] has been liked by something like half a million people. Given the sensational matter of the allegations, it has been republished hundreds of thousands of times [in the media].
“The post accused Mrs Vardy of either leaking her Instagram posts or being reasonably suspected of having done so. Mrs Vardy has suffered very widespread hostility and abuse. She was seven months pregnant at the time, which increased the stress.”
In her formal claim to the court, Vardy’s lawyers said she received vicious threats and abuse because of Rooney’s accusations. She consequently suffered “extreme distress, hurt, anxiety and embarrassment.” The offensive insults, it was said, made Vardy “feel suicidal”.
Vardy’s claim said her children had to be driven to school and nursery with black bin liners over their car windows to shield them from the press. Her husband was also targeted at football matches where “opposition supporters chanted taunts directed at him … including ‘your wife is a grass’ and ‘Becky Vardy’s a grass’”.
Tomlinson said the media had treated the saga as entertainment, but for Vardy it had not been entertaining. “Whatever leaks there were did not come from her. As a last resort she has brought this action to vindicate her reputation.”
In libel cases, Tomlinson added, “the intention of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is what the ordinary reader understands it to mean on Twitter or Instagram.”
He asked the court to impose a stay on the case until 8 February to see whether the two parties could resolve their dispute through mediation following the outcome of this preliminary hearing. If they fail to agree a settlement the dispute would be expected to go to a full trial next summer.
David Sherborne, representing Rooney, told the court Vardy was alleging the “unequivocal” meaning of the post is that it was “pointing the finger at Mrs Vardy herself as having leaked”.
By contrast, Sherborne said, Rooney herself was saying that the online post was not unequivocally blaming Vardy but “the account of Rebekah Vardy”.
He continued: “There are shades of meaning between the [two positions] but not an enormous number of shades between those two positions … Mrs Rooney is defending the words as true.”
Rooney, Sherborne said, had attempted to negotiate a resolution of the dispute with Vardy a number of times. “Now she has no choice. She will prove the words true in either meaning. The claimant [Vardy] was responsible for constantly passing on information about her private Instagram posts account to the Sun.
“This was part of Mrs Vardy’s established history and practice for providing information to the press. This was sometimes done directly, sometimes anonymously and sometimes through a third party.”
The court was told that the online accounts of celebrities were sometimes curated or operated on their behalf by other people.
“Mrs Rooney does not refer to an individual, she refers to an account,” Sherborne said. “The ordinary reasonable, reader would conclude that it was saying something less than unequivocally that Rebekah Vardy was the source.”
The hearing lasted less than an hour and a half. Warby said he would give judgment on the meaning of the claim that needs to be proved on Friday afternoon.