Thanks to the MeToo movement, hundreds of abusers around the world, including A-list celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and others, had been exposed. While the movement democratised the media space for the public, it also enabled and fanned the flame of cancel culture, erasing the much-needed nuance in the story.
The epitome of this circus, one can perhaps say, is the recently concluded Depp-Heard case. Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife, Amber Heard, for libel. On 11 April this year, the trial began. And got the whole world hooked, which only grew more intense with each passing week. On Wednesday, the televised trial ended.
Depp 'won' and was awarded $15 million while "in a split decision, the jury also found that Heard was defamed by one of Depp's lawyers, who accused her of creating a detailed hoax that included roughing up the couple's apartment to look worse for police. The jury awarded her $2 million," reported The Associated Press.
Now that all is done and dusted and as the world reels back from closely watching one of the most expensive defamation trials, there seems to be a more sinister aspect to this court theatre.
After the release of 2011 The Rum Diary (which Johnny Depp and Amber Heard - 20 years younger than Depp - both starred in), they started dating each other and three years later, they got married - just in the budding phase of Heard's stardom.
A year later, Heard filed for divorce and a restraining order. From there the saga began.
A serious defamation case for $50 million was first filed by Depp against Heard after her infamous op-ed was published in The Washington Post in 2018 where she claimed herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse." Even though the opinion piece did not utter his name, the reference was obvious.
However, the former couple started gaining attention from the time of their divorce verdict in 2016, where Heard bagged $7 million in the settlement. From that point on, Depp's reputation started to take serious hits and the media used the event to write and publish insensitive content, triggering a global audience.
Unprecedented media attention and the role of media
According to Newswhip, a news data monitoring platform, the Depp-Heard trial got at least five times more engagement than news related to Roe v Wade and more than 10 times more than news related to Covid-19.
The Depp-Heard garnered widespread media attention and led news media outlets (some progressive ones) to choose sides.
Renowned media house in the United Kingdom, The Sun was always in the team Heard, labelling Johnny Depp as 'wife beater' in a 2018 article, which put an indelible stain on Depp's career. In the same year, Heard was idolised by a group of people and even was named as an ambassador of women's rights for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Like The Sun, a New York Times writer Amanda Hess has shown support for Amber Heard by writing an article named "TikTok's Amber Heard Hate Machine" in 2020. This, in one way, seems right if you want to consider the freedom of speech of a journalist, as long as it draws a rational conclusion. It is noteworthy to know that The Sun has a history of publishing articles without objectivity. One example is when the media house published defamatory news against Cameron Diaz, saying that she cheated on Justin Timberlake with a married man. Diaz sued and won that defamation case. One of the other most expensive defamation trials was when Russell Brand sued The Sun and won.
Depp sued The Sun for libel and lost that trial in the UK in 2020 and subsequently, he slowly faded away from the public arena and even lost his contracts with Disney and Warner Brothers. The first sign was his exit from the Fantastic Beasts 3, where he had already started shooting and then lost the chance to appear in the sixth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean.
Legal experts say it is because the decision in the UK was taken by a judge whilst the decision in the US was taken by the jury. They said the US attorney used the Darvo tactic (Deny, Attack, Reverse, Victim and Offender) in which Depp is a victim and Heard was seen as the abuser, which works great with juries.
What is libel in journalism anyway?
This is more common than you would think. Libel charges can be filed when someone makes a false defamatory statement for publication and that statement is identified in print.
Published opinion articles generally come with a disclaimer that the views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the outlet.
However, one can also argue that in cases of high profile public figures, more caution is warranted to avoid the possibility of libel.
Coming back to the WP op-ed, Depp was countersued for $100 million by Heard in 2021. However, unlike Depp, Heard did not lose her major film project - Aquaman. The support of feminist groups and continuous defamation of Depp did not affect her until the social media crusade started.
This is not to say Amber Heard stayed unaffected.
Petition signatures calling for Amber Heard's removal from Aquaman 2 reached nearly 4,500,000 recently. The justice for Depp tag achieved 10 billion views on TikTok. According to a Vice report, Daily Wire has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting ads and videos with a bias against Heard, forcing the public to think in a fixated way.
The media's excessive coverage of this defamation trial eventually divided America, and to some extent, the world too, into two parts. One where male chauvinists tried to shadow the majority of cases where females were abused. On the other hand, liberals came with their pitchforks against anyone who disagreed with them.
In the end, everyone lost as the nuance that abuse can work in both ways got lost in the muddy waters. The media can make us aware of an issue, sure, but it can also play a negative role by not being objective and influencing or manipulating the public according to their own bias - particularly when the allegations made in the court of law are as serious as domestic violence.
This seems problematic, and perhaps this could be the takeaway lesson from this trial for us all. To tread with caution and not perceive all topics as content for entertainment. Afterall, Depp and Heard are both people, not just celebrities in the public eye.
The Depp-Heard case should not be a tool for propagating misogynistic opinions, in fact, it should encourage thinking more broadly and should encourage looking at celebrities more humanly.