30 Nov 30 November 2020
In this issue of zoom-in brief: ‘Wagatha Christie’ – court finds Tweet did accuse Rebekah Vardy of giving stories to The Sun; French media opposed to legislation which could ban filming of police; and Matrix 4 stands accused of trying to disguise a wrap party as a film shoot to bypass German Coronavirus rules.
Round one of the libel claim dubbed “Wagatha Christie” has gone to the claimant, Rebekah Vardy. The case was brought by Ms Vardy (wife of England footballer Jamie Vardy) after Colleen Rooney (wife of fellow England footballer Wayne Rooney) wrote a post on Instagram and Twitter about trying to find out who had been providing stories about her private life to The Sun newspaper. Ms Rooney told the story of how she had published fake stories about herself visible only to certain people on Instagram, reasoning that if those appeared in a newspaper she would have identified who was leaking them. In the denouement, she said ‘It’s ……………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.’ Ms Vardy denied providing stories to The Sun, and sued Ms Rooney for libel.
As a preliminary issue, the court was asked to decide the meaning of the words. This is common in libel cases, as although different people may take slightly different meanings from an article or social media post, under libel law the judge has to decide the one ‘true meaning’ of the words. For example, there might be argument as to whether an article accuses someone of being a thief, or rather makes the less serious allegation that there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of being a thief.
In this case, the argument was over whether what was meant was that it was Ms Vardy herself who had leaked the stories to The Sun, or whether the words ‘Rebekah Vardy’s account’ meant that it could have been anyone who had access to her Instagram account, not necessarily Ms Vardy herself, and therefore it only meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect Ms Vardy. Lawyers for Ms Rooney argued that it was well-known that celebrities had people who managed their social media accounts for them.
The judge found that the post meant that Ms Vardy herself had leaked the stories.
This now sets the parameters for the rest of the case, meaning that if Ms Rooney wants to defend the case by saying that the post was true, she will have to prove that Ms Vardy herself provided the stories to The Sun. It would not be sufficient to show that someone else, for example someone employed by Ms Vardy did so, nor would it be enough for her just to show that she had evidence which led her to reasonably suspect Ms Vardy.
Vardy and Rooney have now agreed to a stay of proceedings to try to settle things out of court, but if they do not, the case may move towards a full trial. zoom-in will be following the case avidly and will report on developments.
The French National Assembly has passed a Bill which includes a section which may make it harder for the media to report on the activities of the police.
The controversial provision of the Global Security Bill, Article 24, which was passed on 24 November, forbids the publication of images that allow the identification of a law enforcement officer ‘with the intent to cause them harm, physically or mentally.’
The Bill will now be considered by the French Senate in December.
In a statement before Tuesday’s vote, the officer of the French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, said the new law should not ‘prejudice the legitimate interest of the public to be informed.’
Many disagree, however, and the legislation has already led to protests and marches by those concerned about its implications for France, a country where there is a particular tension between a healthy culture of protest, and a sometimes authoritarian and heavy-handed approach to policing.
Demonstrators in Paris have included representatives of the media among their number, along with “gilets jaunes” protestors, and members of Extinction Rebellion.
Those who support the Bill point to it being required after police officers were identified and harassed online during the gilets jaunes protests of 2018 and 2019.
They also refer to the fact that any prosecution would depend on the need to show an ‘intent to cause harm.’
Reporters Without Borders have responded that this provision is too vague. ‘Intent is a concept that is open to interpretation and hard to determine,’ the organisation said.
‘Any photos or video showing identifiable police officers that are published or broadcast by critical media outlets or are accompanied by critical comments could find themselves being accused of seeking to harm these police officers,’ the group said.
In this country, there is in principle nothing to prevent the identification of police officers by the media when they are in public, and in the context of legal proceedings.
The English courts have seen attempts to anonymise police officers, soldiers, and members of the security services in the context of cases involving terrorism or national security.
However, the test that typically applies in these circumstances is a high one, of showing a real and immediate, objectively verifiable threat to life, and as a result is rarely satisfied.
Harassment such as that which the French legislation is supposed to prevent could in this country be addressed under existing law.
In granting a special status to police officers where images of them are to be published, the French legislation would be a departure from the norm, which gives rise to understandable concerns for the media.
Authorities in Germany are reportedly investigating whether a party held at the studio where the latest Matrix film was shot breached Coronavirus rules. About 200 people were at the party, including star Keanu Reeves, with the guests invited to come as ‘extras’.
A spokesperson for the studio said that producers for the film told the them that they were shooting extra footage for a ‘celebration scene’. “The hygiene regulations were complied with,” she added. “The production team consciously put this shoot with its many participants, right at the end of the filming.”
However, an attendee at the party told German tabloid Bild that the event seemed more like a party, with nobody actually filming the events. “No directorial instructions were given, there was no clapperboard, and no one was filming,” the attendee said. “The mood was exuberant. Everyone was given a corona PCR test in advance. Everyone needed to come wearing a mask, but many people didn’t wear them as the party wore on.”
In the UK, most Coronavirus laws and restrictions will not apply if an activity is work related. Whether the party in this case was or was not a film shoot and therefore for work purposes, or purely social purposes, the headlines it has generated around the world serves as a reminder to production companies that they do need to think carefully about all activities organised in connection with their productions. If the activity in question is not reasonably necessary for work related purposes, it may well be illegal. Abbas Media Law has helped get some of the biggest shows in television back on our screens this year. For advice and guidance on Coronavirus laws and regulations affecting production please contact Abbas Media Law at email@example.com
Abbas Media Law is a niche law firm, specialising in advice to independent production companies and broadcasters. We are true experts in our field: all lawyers and advisors have in the past worked either in-house for broadcasters and/or production companies. Accordingly, we fully understand production and the needs of our clients. We offer expert advice and representation on all programme content related matters (legal and regulatory), all aspects of business affairs, as well as complaints-handling and litigation. Visit www.abbasmedialaw.com or contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.