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Johnny Depp’s libel trial: Jess Phillips MP explains why those Amber Heard headlines are so dangerous

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Kayleigh Dray
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Johnny Depp arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand on July 20, 2020 in London, England. The Hollywood Actor is suing News Group Newspapers (NGN) and the Sun's executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an article published in 2018 that referred to him as a "wife beater" during his marriage to actor Amber Heard. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Jess Phillips has underlined the big problem with the tabloids’ coverage of the Johnny Depp libel trial.

It’s hard to avoid the tabloids’ feverish coverage of Johnny Depp’s libel case against The Sun. Indeed, every single day has seen new headlines cobbled together from witness statements. All have seemingly been designed to shock and titillate viewers. Many, too, stand accused of reducing serious allegations of domestic abuse to clickbait headlines.

“Sensational claims of violence, drug binges, and bizarre bedroom pranks – as Johnny Depp circus lands in UK High Court… now THAT’S a Hollywood blockbuster!” reads one such headline, which was shared on Twitter by a disgusted Victoria Derbyshire.

The impact of these “inappropriate” headlines has already been felt on social media, where the conversation around Depp’s libel case is focused almost entirely upon whether or not his ex-wife, Amber Heard, was lying when she previously accused him of abuse.

And, as the trial enters its third week, we’ve no doubt the conversation will continue in this manner. After all, this is the week that Heard will be quizzed by Depp’s barrister, David Sherborne, over 14 allegations of domestic violence that The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), relies heavily upon in its defence of an April 2018 article that branded Depp a “wife beater”.

However, as Jess Phillips MP has noted in a powerful essay, Heard is not on trial here: NGN is. And the tabloids’ coverage of the case is sending the wrong message to domestic abuse victims.

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Writing for The Independent, Phillips – who was recently appointed the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding – notes: “Heard’s character seems to be on trial, when she had absolutely no part in bringing this case or any other case forward…

“She is merely a witness in the trial and has no control over what the fallout might be, her life laid bare because of a fight between two other parties.”

Amber Heard denies Johnny Depp’s claims that she punched him in the face
Amber Heard is not on trial here: NGN is.

Phillips goes on to explain that the tabloids’ “character assassination of Heard” leans too far towards the “old tropes about domestic abuse that campaigners like me have tried for years to combat.”

“We are invited to hear claims about how much she drank, what a difficult personality she had, how she used to start arguments, as if any of this is relevant to the question of whether Depp ever abused her,” the MP continues. “It isn’t.”

Phillips adds: “I don’t know what happened in the glamorous homes of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. It doesn’t really matter what you believe in this case; fundamentally, someone’s poor character traits or their likeliness to drink do not mean they cannot be abused. Abused women are not all one type of perfect picture of victimhood who would incite sympathy from everyone they met.”

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Phillips finishes her essay by noting: “Whatever the conclusion and whatever the truth in the case of Johnny Depp vs The Sun, none of us will ever truly know what happened. What I don’t want to happen is that the reporting on this case sends a message to victims of abuse in this country that no one will believe them unless they are a squeaky clean, Shirley Temple type and their perpetrator is a raging monster hated by all.

“We have fought too long and too hard to reset some of these mindsets in our justice system and in our culture. Let’s not go back.”

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp
Amber Heard split from Johnny Depp in May 2016.

Heard split from Depp in May 2016 after 15 months of marriage, and days later obtained a temporary restraining order against him.

The divorce was finalised in January 2017 amid highly publicised claims of domestic violence and counter-claims of financial blackmail.

Depp, as mentioned, is suing News Group Newspapers (NGN) and The Sun’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an article published in 2018 that referred to the film star as a “wife beater”.

The actor’s lawyers seek to prove The Sun’s allegations are not true and amount to “serious harm” as defined in the Defamation Act 2013.

Depp is also suing Heard for defamation over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post, in which she describes being a victim of domestic abuse but does not name her ex.

The National Centre for Domestic Violence offers a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Text NCDV to 60777, call 0800 9702070, or visit ncdv.org.uk.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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