Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s libel trial is nothing short of a media circus

WARNING: This story contains details of intimate partner violence.

Johnny Depp testified in his libel case against his ex-wife Amber Heard last week. The trial, which is broadcast live on the Internet for the entire world to watch and consume, has caused nothing short of a media circus.

Depp is suing Heard for $50 million dollars, claiming that a 2018 op-ed she wrote for washington post he is clearly referring to their marriage due to his earlier public claims that he had abused her. In the article, Heard calls herself a “public figure representing domestic violence.” Depp denies the accusations. Heard has filed a counterclaim for $100 million.

In addition to a live broadcast, celebrity witnesses from Elon Musk to James Franco to Paul Bettany will testify for both Depp and Heard at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia. A social media campaign in support of Depp has burst on Twitter and TikTok.

The high-profile nature of the case, coupled with the sensational coverage of unsavory details, is a remarkable example of public engagement with the private lives of movie stars: more accessible than the paparazzi and far less flattering than Instagram.

That’s what makes the frenzy around Depp and Heard an outlier in celebrity trials, experts say.

Televised trial leads to ‘performances’

Depp demonstrates how he claims he protected himself from an alleged attack by ex-wife Amber Heard as he testifies during his libel trial against Heard at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia, on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Depp’s libel case against Heard is being broadcast on Court TV, a digital network dedicated to live coverage of legal trials in the US. Having a camera present in the courtroom can affect how a person behaves during his testimony, according to experts.

“Johnny Depp is literally giving an acting lesson every time he takes the stand,” said Paula Todd, a journalism professor at York University and a Toronto lawyer.

The televised trial is a “massive technological amplification” of the audience’s typical interest in the lives of famous people, Todd said, adding that a televised court trial is unusual.

Watching the network’s coverage, it would be easy to mistake the proceedings for a wrestling match. The presenters assure the audience that during a “short intermission” they “will not miss a thing.” After a particularly lewd detail, they ask, “Can it get any worse? Tune in later to find out.” Court TV did not respond in time to an interview request.

Although the trial is free and accessible for public consumption, the courts have not granted access for entertainment purposes, Todd said.

“It is being broadcast because we have a right to a public court system.”

Heard speaks with his legal team as Depp returns to the stand after a lunch break. Heard has filed a counterclaim against Depp for $100 million. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

The decision to allow cameras in the courtroom is administrative and rests with the sitting judge. However, either side can use the cameras to their advantage, Todd said.

“I think it’s helping [Depp]Todd said. “I think he’s building public sympathy for him, because people like him as a performer.”

While being questioned by Heard’s lawyer this week, Depp made a number of ill-advised jokes.

When asked about drug use, he told the court that he offered singer Marilyn Manson a pill “to get her to stop talking so much.” In response to a video in which Depp could be heard acting erratically, he said: “I hit a couple of cabinets, but I didn’t hit Mrs. Heard.”

Headlines Overshadowing Assault Accusations

Heard looks on during the defamation trial in the Fairfax County Circuit Court. (Jim Watson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Both Heard and Depp have accused the other of physical and psychological abuse. In court documents, Heard said that Depp assaulted her during her relationship and Depp maintains that she was her aggressor.

In 2020, Depp lost a libel lawsuit in which the British tabloid Sun he called him a “wife beater”. Heard was the main witness in that trial.

“I think it’s very possible that a case like this could have a chilling effect on anyone who wants to come forward, any survivor of abuse,” said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

“It’s very important to step back and see that a lot of this violence happens in relationships where there is an imbalance of power.”

CLOCK | Johnny Depp loses his libel case against British tabloid:

Johnny Depp loses libel suit in UK

Johnny Depp has lost his court case against a British tabloid that labeled the actor a “wife beater”. The judge said he believed the claims to be “substantially true.” 1:52

According to Statistics Canada report published in 2019, 4.2% of women were survivors of domestic violence compared to 2.7% of men. Overall, 80 percent of survivors said they did not report their abuse to the police.

“These dynamics are often written as passion, as strong feelings, but they are actually dynamics that are unacceptable,” Gunraj said. In the past, Heard and Depp had referred to their relationship as “passionate and volatile, but always united by love”.

The Canadian court system, which is friendlier to plaintiffs than the US system because it places the onus to refute libel on the defendant, should not be judged based on what we have seen in the Depp and Heard case, Todd said. .

“It’s important to try to remember that you’re not a bad person when you’ve been abused,” he added.

“It has everything to do with people who are trying to maintain their own power, and it turns out that you’re a part of it.”

Social Media Amplifies Judgment

Spectators showing their support for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard outside the courthouse on April 11, 2022. Observers say the live-streamed trial has turned into a frenzy because fans have such direct access to the lives of celebrities. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

For Samita Nandy, a Toronto-based celebrity scholar, the case stands out for the role social media has played in amplifying it.

“In terms of social media presence, what really stands out to me is the blurring of the lines between the public and private spheres,” Nandy said.

A Twitter hashtag in support of Depp trended last week and a TikTok hashtag in support of Depp has accumulated 3 billion views to date.

Nandy, who is director of the Center for Celebrity and Media Studies in Mississauga, Ontario, said she is reminded of Britney Spears’ legal efforts to end her conservatorship over how the pop star used Instagram to connect with fans. .

“I think for this celebrity couple, the engagement with the fans was very important.”

Depp waves inside a courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court on the day the jury heard opening statements. (Brendan Smialowski/The Associated Press)

About 25 years ago, the media began both using ordinary people for entertainment and increasing its coverage of behind-the-scenes moments in the lives of celebrities, according to Evie Psarras, a Chicago-based feminist media scholar.

“For decades, and with the advent of social media, we have been conditioned to over-share our own private moments and demand that celebrities do the same,” Psarras wrote via email. He pointed out that reality series have some roots in court television.

For fans who are fascinated by the authenticity of a celebrity, the case of Depp and Heard is a rare example of highly protected private lives coming to light.

“Privacy is considered a privilege today, not a right. This live stream of the court case is a perfect picture of the state of our relationship with celebrities,” added Psarras.

“I don’t think people are looking for ethics here. They’re not looking for morality…essentially, they’re consuming celebrity and it’s all about instant gratification.”


Support is available to anyone who has been abused or assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through the Canadian Partnership to End Violence Database. The Helpline for battered women is a 24/7 helpline for women experiencing abuse. The Canadian Women’s Foundation help signal is a silent one-handed gesture to use on a video call to indicate that you are at risk of domestic violence. ​​If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety or the safety of those around you, call 911.

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