DEFAMATION TRIAL REFLECTION
How we’re all being gaslighted by the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard lawsuit
The legal battle between divorced actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is a sordid melodrama – but the way in which it’s being framed and received by the public is deeply worrying.
There’s a question which lawyers for actress Amber Heard have repeatedly put to witnesses in the court case which sees ex-husband Johnny Depp suing Heard for defamation on the basis of a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece in which she implied she was the victim of domestic abuse at Depp’s hands during their relationship.
That question, loosely paraphrased, is: have you ever heard of an actress whose career or reputation has improved after making accusations of violence against a famous man?
Nobody has been able to respond with a name. That is deeply revealing. Yet the dominant public narrative around the Depp-Heard saga has become the following: that Heard probably invented abuse allegations against Depp to raise her profile and bolster her career.
Never mind that this strategy has never succeeded in the history of Hollywood. Never mind that a British court has already found there was sufficient evidence to classify Depp as abusive. Never mind that this is a historical moment in which we were told that the #MeToo movement had ushered in a new climate of support for women confronting powerful men.
Despite all this, the woman making court-endorsed allegations of abuse against one of the most famous actors alive is being utterly and grotesquely vilified in the public sphere. How the hell did we find ourselves back here?
The reality is that there are two courts currently hearing the lawsuit between divorced celebrity couple Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The first is the actual court of law sitting in Virginia, USA, where Depp has brought a second defamation lawsuit against Heard after losing his first attempt in a UK court in November 2020.
The second is the court of public opinion, headquartered increasingly on social media. And whatever judgment is eventually delivered by the Virginia court, it is the ruling of the court of public opinion which is likely to have more lasting impact on the lives of the two actors involved. This is where things get scary, because the version of the case being filtered through social media bears very little resemblance to the real events unfolding within the Virginia courthouse.
It’s not just social media which is delivering a thoroughly warped interpretation of the Depp-Heard trial. Tabloids are having a field-day with the lawsuit, which is airing the dirty laundry of its celebrity participants in irresistibly sordid detail. The coverage given to the trial by more “serious” publications has been far more muted. The New Yorker has yet to publish a single article on it. At time of writing, outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times have carried intermittent reports on court proceedings which are sober and factual, with minimal accompanying analysis.
This is entirely on brand. It is understandable that the more high-minded press considers the matter unworthy of sustained focus in a world where there are seemingly millions more pressing issues deserving of media attention. But what this means is that the more populist outlets which are running wall-to-wall coverage of the lawsuit are effectively being given free reign, together with social media users, to dictate the narrative frame of the Depp-Heard saga.
Here’s why this is a problem. The publications and broadcasters devoting the most space to the coverage tend to be those with an existing right-wing and sexist bias: Mail Online, for instance, and Fox News. These are outlets notorious for bringing a misogynistic lens to their coverage of women at the best of times. These are also outlets which have been vocally critical of the #MeToo movement. And in the Depp-Heard lawsuit, they have found the perfect vehicle to ram home an argument they have been pushing for the last few years: the #MeToo movement is out of control. The lives of innocent men risk being forever ruined by vindictive women.
Depp is, of course, the innocent man at hand; Heard, the vindictive woman. It is hard to convey just how outrageously skewed the coverage of this case has been in service of this narrative. Mail Online hired a “body language expert” to scrutinise footage of Heard on the stand and audit every facial flicker and hand gesture for evidence of concealed duplicity. No such expert was called in to analyse Depp’s witness performance: his was apparently considered self-evidently trustworthy.
Across multiple media outlets, people described as “legal experts” have criticised Heard for “overacting” on the stand, while praising Depp’s “charisma and charm”. The accusation that Heard’s testimony of abuse was nothing more than a theatrical performance from a professional actor has gained particular traction, while the testimony of Depp – who by most accounts is a far more skilled professional actor – has been more likely to be respectfully accepted at face value.
In medieval witch trials, there was simply nothing a woman accused of witchcraft could do to prove her innocence. If she was thrown into water and she drowned, it was evidence of her guilt. If she was thrown into water and she survived, it was evidence of her occult powers and, accordingly, guilt. This is pretty much the situation in which Heard finds herself. It is one in which she can be accused of over-acting on the stand while simultaneously being criticised for not producing sufficiently visible tears. It is one in which she has been charged with remembering too many details of her alleged assaults by Depp to be considered plausible – but if she was too vague, you can be certain this too would render her version implausible.
If Heard is caught smiling inside court, it is evidence of her spiteful satisfaction at Depp’s predicament. When Depp smiles inside court, as he has done often, it is proof that he feels “vulnerable and emasculated”, to quote yet another body language expert. When Heard had the temerity to wipe her nose with a tissue, she was accused of doing so extra slowly in the hope a camera would catch it. A South African website used the same moment to suggest Heard might be snorting cocaine in open court. Depp has actually been far more demonstrative during the court proceedings so far – sniggering, shaking his head, chewing sweets – but no aspect of his conduct receives anywhere near the critical scrutiny given to Heard’s.
Indeed, Depp has been widely granted benefit of the doubt to an exceptional degree compared with Heard. British actress Helena Bonham Carter – one of a legion of fellow celebrities lining up to support Depp – expressed a commonly held view about the case to a journalist: that she assumed Depp had to be innocent simply on the basis that he continued to pursue defamation charges against Heard so doggedly. (The same argument could well be applied to Heard – why would she continue to allege abuse against Depp at such evidently catastrophic cost to her reputation if it wasn’t true? – but somehow never is.)
The notion that Depp is pursuing these cases because he knows he is innocent was categorically undermined by the first UK trial, in which a text message sent by Depp was produced to the court in which he promised to deliver “total global humiliation” to Heard. His dedication to this quest was revealed by his testimony in the current case. Despite the fact that it had no bearing at all on the matter at hand, Depp made a point of casting aspersions on Heard’s acting ability, claiming that a number of directors had expressed doubt to him about whether Heard was “up to the job”, and taking credit for giving her acting coaching himself. These are the actions of a man doing everything in his power to ensure his ex-wife struggles to find future work.
Depp also repeatedly expressed contempt at Heard’s “ambition”, as if the aspirations of a twenty-something actress trying to establish herself in her professional field amounted to a moral stain. (This is an age-old sexist trope in which ambition in women is seen as desperate or sinister, while ambition in men is perfectly normal and appropriate.) The man who rose from humble origins to become the highest-paid actor in the world assured the jury that he himself had never harboured a speck of personal ambition – beyond aiming to be the best possible parent to his children.
But if the coverage on traditional media outlets has been unfair to Heard, her treatment in the warzone of social media has been downright inhumane. If you have logged on to any of the major social networking platforms in recent weeks, it’s likely that you will have seen one of the countless videos dedicated towards undermining Heard’s credibility, often hashtagged along the lines of #justiceforjohnny. These usually include courtroom clips edited and spliced to create an entirely false impression, as you will realise if you watch the original footage.
Because few serious journalists or analysts are engaged with the Depp/Heard trial, these are allowed to circulate virally without being subjected to the kind of fact-checking that might accompany viral videos reflecting a more important news event. In this way, they become the official record of court proceedings for billions of social media users. The volume of support for Depp currently evident on sites like Twitter and TikTok is simply extraordinary – to the point, in fact, of being improbable. An orchestrated social media campaign from Depp’s team involving bots is quite possible: as has been pointed out, Depp’s lawyer, Adam Waldman, has documented links to Russian oligarchs, whose involvement in botfarming at scale is widely suspected.
But other Depp supporters on social media are clearly real live humans with a chilling appetite for vengeance against Heard and anyone connected with her. A psychologist who testified in favour of Heard promptly received a slew of negative professional reviews online, aimed at damaging her reputation as a result of her testimony. There were no reports of anything similar happening to another psychologist who testified to support Depp’s version.
Amid this sea of prejudice and misinformation, the reality of what is actually happening in the courtroom is drowned. The picture being built there of Depp and Heard’s marriage is one of a nightmarishly dysfunctional relationship, with toxic levels of jealousy, mistrust, and substance abuse on both sides. From the evidence presented, it is highly likely that both Depp and Heard engaged in abusive behaviour in different forms. There are no angels here. But only one of them is reported to have already secured their next starring movie role: Johnny Depp will start shooting his lates film, which he is due to headline in the role of French King Louis XV, shortly after court proceedings conclude. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.