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Mystery of phone in North Sea could hold key to ‘Wagatha Christie’ case | Media

SSomewhere at the bottom of the North Sea lies a mobile phone which could contain the evidence Coleen Rooney needs to win next week’s ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel case at the High Court in London. Unfortunately for the footballer’s wife, her only hope of recovering the device – and any relevant WhatsApp messages it may still contain – is if a fishing trawler dredges the phone before her case begins on Monday.

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The celebrity libel trial of the year is set to finally begin after more than £1million in legal costs, the publication of harrowing private conversations and revelations about interactions between footballers’ wives and tabloid journalists.

On one side is Coleen Rooney, who has spent most of her life in the public eye as the wife of former England player Wayne Rooney. Stories about her private life have always been the catnip of the tabloid press, with paparazzi once receiving several thousand pounds for exclusive photographs of her. Nearly three years ago, Rooney carried out an elaborate sting operation to try to catch the person leaking stories about his family from his private Instagram account to reporters at The Sun.

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On the other side is Rebekah Vardy, the wife of Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, a late arrival on the footballing wives scene who – according to the court’s revelations – had conversations with her agent about the sale of stories about a drunk driving incident involving her husband’s ex. his teammate Danny Drinkwater to Sun reporters. In one exchange, she appeared to suggest her agent forward an article to the tabloid and add, “I want to pay for this x.”

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Vardy on ITV's Loose Women during her first TV interview since posting her social media account, February 2020
Vardy on ITV’s Loose Women during her first TV interview since posting her social media account, February 2020. Photography: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

After Rooney’s extensive research into who was leaking from her Instagram – earning her the nickname “Wagatha Christie” – in October 2019, she made the public accusation that started the lengthy process: “Now I know with certainty which account/individual it came from. I recorded and captured all of the original stories which clearly show that only one person saw them. This is Rebekah Vardy’s account.

The problem is that Vardy has always denied being the backer and having taken legal action, claiming that Rooney defamed her with a false allegation. Under English libel law, it is up to Rooney to substantiate his original accusation. And, amid the accidental loss of potentially key evidence by Vardy and his team, Rooney has yet to find hard evidence.

Take the phone at the bottom of the North Sea, which belonged to Vardy’s agent, Caroline Watt. Last summer, as legal proceedings were in full swing, Rooney’s lawyers asked to search the device for WhatsApp messages that might help their case. The high court heard that shortly after – and before the phone could be searched – Watt was on a boat trip off the coast of Britain when she hit a big wave and accidentally dropped her mobile phone in it. the sea, losing its contents. The incident was described as “most unfortunate” by Rooney’s lawyers.

A separate set of potentially relevant WhatsApp messages held by Vardy was backed up by his IT expert, but the court heard they unfortunately “forgot the password”. The laptop computer used by Vardy during the relevant period no longer works. Watt’s Twitter account has also been deleted. Jamie Vardy himself lost access to his WhatsApp messages after the court was told they had been hacked.

And the Sun is resisting attempts to leak any messages from Watt and Vardy potentially held by its reporter Andy Halls, citing the rights of a free press and journalists to protect their sources. In response, Rooney’s attorneys claim they are being denied a fair trial due to a lack of evidence.

Victoria Beckham (left) with Wayne Rooney's then-unknown girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin (centre), Louise Owen (wife of Michael Owen, second right) and Elen Rivas (fiancée of Frank Lampard, right).
Victoria Beckham (left) with Wayne Rooney’s then-unknown girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin (centre), Louise Owen (wife of Michael Owen, second right) and Elen Rivas (fiancée of Frank Lampard, right). Photo: Mark Large/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Mark Stephens QC, a prominent media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, told the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast that the case was “almost unique in the history of libel because it is not hampered by evidence”.

He added: “Deliberately destroying evidence is a very serious matter. But there is no indication that this happened. It seems that there was a series of unfortunate events that meant that this case could not be properly proven.

The defining moment in the case may have come with a court ruling in late 2020. While Rooney originally wrote that ‘Rebekah Vardy’s account’ was responsible for leaking the Instagram Stories to The Sun, Judge Warby ruled that the true meaning of those words – on which the defamation suit will be based – was that Vardy was personally responsible for the leak. As a result, Rooney must either prove that it was Vardy herself – rather than someone else with access to Vardy’s Instagram account – who leaked stories to The Sun, or convince a judge that the publication of the allegation was in the public interest.

In the absence of conclusive evidence, Rooney and his legal team instead had to build a case based on the inference. They argue that since Vardy had dealings with the Sun and talked about selling stories to the paper, it is reasonable to conclude that she was the leaker on that occasion. The court also heard that Vardy, for her part, suggested at the last minute that Watt, her agent, may have “betrayed” her and leaked the relevant stories without her knowledge.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of (left to right) Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Rebekah Vardy, Justice Mr Justice Warby and David Sherborne, representing Coleen Rooney, at the Royal Courts of Justice at the first Vardy High Court libel claim hearing.
Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of (left to right) Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Rebekah Vardy, Justice Mr Justice Warby and David Sherborne, representing Coleen Rooney, at the Royal Courts of Justice at the first Vardy High Court libel claim hearing. Photograph: Elizabeth Cook/PA

On Monday, a six-day trial will begin. Watt now says she’s too ill to testify, but Wayne Rooney could be called as a witness. There is a waiting list for tickets to attend the small, wood-paneled Victorian courtroom in central London, with officials having already arranged an overflow room given the level of media interest in the case .

Vardy’s reputation has been further shaken following her decision to file a defamation suit, after messages showed her she would ‘love’ leaking stories about Rooney and may have called her supposed friend a ‘bitch “. However, Vardy could decide it was a bet worth winning if justified by a libel victory – with the loser facing a million-pound legal bill.

Stephens said Rooney’s team faced a tough challenge under English libel law: “I think Vardy wins this on a technical point because there’s no evidence that Coleen has who can. to prove.”

Listen to the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast on the case:

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