Johnny Depp versus The Sun: What are the media law issues?

Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun enters its second week on Monday. These are the key issues the trial judge, Mr Justice Nicol, has to determine.

Whether the April 2018 article by the tabloid’s executive editor Dan Wootton was defamatory of Depp. Under the Defamation Act 2013, a statement is not defamatory unless its publication causes “serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”.

The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), is defending the claim and relying on a defence of truth.

It is for the publisher to prove that the allegations made in the article are “substantially true”.

The meaning of the article, which is defined as what it would mean to the “reasonable reader”, will have to be determined by the judge.

But NGN’s lawyers say the differences between the rival meanings contended by each side are “not significant” and the outcome of the case will therefore not turn on meaning.

Depp’s case is that the article bore the meaning that he was “guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her fearing for her life, for which he was constrained to pay no less than £5 million to compensate her, and which resulted in him being subjected to a continuing court restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry”.

He strenuously denies the allegations and claims he “has never hit or committed any acts of physical violence against Ms Heard”.

The meaning which NGN will seek to prove is true is that the claimant beat his wife Amber Heard, causing her to suffer significant injury and on occasion leading her to fearing for her life.

They rely on 14 separate allegations of violence and allege more generally that Depp was “controlling and verbally and physically abusive” towards Ms Heard, particularly when he was under the influence of alcohol and or drugs, throughout their relationship.

NGN’s lawyers say an important issue for the judge to decide will be what substances Depp was using during the relationship. They contend that he frequently lost control of himself, partly because of his heavy drug and alcohol use, and also that his memory has been impaired by his heavy use of drugs.

If Depp wins his case, the judge will have to decide what level of compensation he should receive for the harm to his reputation and for the “distress, hurt and humiliation caused”.

There is an upper limit on general damages for libel of £300,000 to £325,000. However, if he succeeds, Mr Depp may also be entitled to aggravated damages. The actor is also asking for a final injunction against NGN, who his legal team say “have retained the article on their website and maintained their allegation to the bitter end”.

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