HomeInsightsHigh Court rules on meaning of social media post in Rebekah Vardy v Coleen Rooney defamation proceedings

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Ms Vardy issued proceedings for defamation against Ms Rooney in relation to an Instagram post and Tweet in which Ms Rooney, who has 885,000 followers on Instagram and 1.2 million followers on Twitter, said that having undertaken her own investigation, she had discovered who it was that had been “consistently informing The SUN newspaper of my private posts and stories”, and that it was, “……. Rebekah Vardy’s account”. In the preliminary issue trial concerning what natural and ordinary meaning was borne by the words complained of, Ms Vardy said that they had the following defamatory meaning about her:

“that [Ms Vardy] has consistently and repeatedly betrayed [Ms Rooney’s] trust over several years by leaking [Ms Rooney’s] private and personal Instagram posts and stories for publication in the Sun Newspaper including a story about gender selection in Mexico; a story about the Defendant returning to TV; and a story about the basement flooding in the Defendant’s new house”.

Ms Rooney, on the other hand, submitted that the words had the following meaning:

“there are reasonable grounds to suspect that [Ms Vardy] was responsible for consistently passing on information about [Ms Rooney’s] private Instagram posts and stories to The Sun newspaper”.

There was no dispute that the words complained of were defamatory of Ms Vardy.

Mr Justice Warby set out the legal principles (as re-stated by Mr Justice Nicklin in Koutsogiannis v The Random House Group Ltd [2019] EWHC 48 (QB)) that he had to apply in order to identify a single, natural and ordinary meaning of the words complained of. Given that the publications in question were social media posts, he said it was particularly important to “beware of indulging in elaborate analysis”. Twitter is a conversational and fast-moving medium, he observed, and people scroll through messages relatively quickly. The reader’s reaction to a post is impressionistic and fleeting and he/she is likely to absorb the essential message quickly, before moving on.

Warby J said that the position in this case was clear: the words complained of bore a Chase level one meaning about Ms Vardy (i.e. the claimant is guilty of the act – Chase v News group Newspapers Ltd [2003] EMLR 11). He found their natural and ordinary meaning to be:

“Over a period of years Ms Vardy had regularly and frequently abused her status as a trusted follower of Ms Rooney’s personal Instagram account by secretly informing The Sun newspaper of Ms Rooney’s private posts and stories, thereby making public without Ms Rooney’s permission a great deal of information about Ms Rooney, her friends and family which she did not want made public”.

This was substantially the same as Ms Vardy’s meaning.

Warby J rejected Ms Rooney’s argument that Ms Vardy’s meaning was “artificial” because “the words complained of refer to the stories being derived from Rebekah Vardy’s “account” as opposed to pointing the finger at the claimant directly, and therefore bear at their highest a Chase level two meaning”.

In Warby J’s view, the ordinary, reasonable reader would not pay much attention to the word “account”, as Ms Rooney contended. In the context of the post, the ordinary reader would not take that single word, albeit repeated, to indicate that Ms Rooney remained in doubt as to who the wrongdoer was. Everyone knows, Warby J said, that it is possible in theory for someone to use another person’s social media account. However, nobody regards that as an everyday or normal occurrence for all social media users. There was nothing in the words, apart from the word “account”, that in any way suggested that the behaviour of which Ms Rooney was complaining might have been carried out by anyone other than the account holder, Ms Vardy.

Further, Warby J said, the post referred to “just one person”, and then the only person mentioned was Rebekah Vardy. The message was not that Ms Vardy might or might not be the wrongdoer. The reader was not being told that the “one person” could be someone else, who had in some way gained access to Ms Vardy’s account and then misused it in order to misuse Ms Rooney’s personal information. If that had been the message, the ordinary reader would expect to see a good deal more than the word “account”, Warby J said. In the context of the post as a whole, that word would be read as just another way of identifying Rebekah Vardy as the wrongdoer.

Warby J also rejected Ms Rooney’s submission that it was a “matter of common knowledge” that a media personality such as Ms Vardy would not be the only person to have access to her Instagram account and that the ordinary reader would have in mind that media personalities such as Ms Vardy have agents and PR teams who cultivate their social media output. Warby J accepted that the ordinary reader would be alert to the possibility that some celebrities might delegate responsibility for some of their social media output, but general awareness that celebrities use agents and PR people in this way was not enough to support Ms Rooney’s argument. The allegation in the post was one of misuse of an account in Ms Vardy’s name to engage in “consistent” breach of trust over a period of years. The reader’s natural inference would be that the miscreant was Ms Vardy herself. (Rebekah Vardy v Colleen Rooney [2020] EWHC 3156 (QB) (20 November 2020) — to read the judgment in full, click here).