The ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial has been splayed across the media since the start of the week. What can PR take from this celebrity circus? 

History is littered with libel trials that began by defending a reputation only to make everything worse. Rebekah Vardy vs Coleen Rooney, aka the ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel trial, looks set to do just that, featuring scurrilous leaks, famous footballers, sweary texts, fake Instagram Stories and an iPhone meeting a watery grave courtesy of a butterfingers PR.

The trial started on Tuesday and exploded into life by dragging poor Peter Andre into things.

Andre’s unfortunate cameo added another twist to an already intriguing libel trial that has particular relevance for PR. Not least because Vardy’s agent, Caroline Watt, played a pivotal role in the run-up to the trial (she isn’t scheduled to appear at this one). It’s been claimed she was behind the leaks that kickstarted the whole affair. And that she had a whoopsie moment when she accidentally dropped an iPhone carrying potentially damning evidence off a boat into the North Sea shortly before she was due to hand it over to Rooney’s lawyers.

This trial is two successful people debasing their public reputations by arguing over a falling-out on Instagram in a courtroom. “Like a poor man’s Heard vs Depp, but without the TikTok,” says entertainment PR Julian Henry (unlike the constant viral clips from Depp vs Heard, cameras are banned from UK courtrooms, leaving artist’s impressions as the only visuals).

Rather than a way to restore a damaged reputation, UK libel law is infamous for being a quick way to add ruinous financial injury to insult. In any libel trial, original slurs on reputations are repeated then pored over – and, if it’s a high-profile trial, splashed across the tabloids and gossiped about.

Jessica Callan, former showbiz journalist and director of lifestyle and media relations at PR and media agency Play, says from “chipolata-gate, a lost-at-sea mobile phone, allegations of leaking stories and claims of paparazzi set-ups, the warring WAGs are providing acres of entertainment on social media and in the press. But neither Rebekah Vardy nor Coleen Rooney are covering themselves in glory. It is a PR debacle, an extraordinary spectacle, a carnival of gruesomeness which has backfired on both women.”

The trial is not about whether Vardy leaked stories, or Vardy’s agent leaked stories, but whether Rooney libelled Vardy by suggesting that she did in a memorable Tweet… which made full use of suspenseful ellipses.

That was in October 2019. Vardy denied it and requested Rooney issue a public apology. Rooney did not. Vardy then sued Rooney for libel in June 2020.

Despite Vardy positioning herself as the victim by launching the action, everything she has ever done that could be perceived as deceptive is now being aired in court for the delectation of the media, including her admission that she leaked stories to the press about one of her husband’s Leicester City FC teammates.

Rooney has yet to take the stand, and will likely endure her own embarrassing moments, but Henry says he “fears for Rebekah, she appears too po-faced as she arrives in court each morning. This is also a trial of public opinion, a popularity contest. And her crude texts to her agent don’t endear her to the public.”

Play’s Callen says: “Compare their unedifying, eye-poppingly expensive mud-slinging court tantrum with the humility of ‘Bowel Babe’ podcast host and columnist Deborah James and her incredible fundraising for Cancer Research this week. She’s raised more than £2.8m and counting, while the sheer waste of cash, court time and three years of Rooney and Vardy’s lives on this extraordinary spat has invoked outraged commentary, reams of negative press and a colossal backlash against this pair.”

Alex Rowe, comms director at brand reputation agency Threesixty, says it’s “unlikely Vardy can claw back her reputation after this disaster. Yes, Rooney will need to prove Vardy was personally responsible for leaking stories to The Sun or that her allegation was in the public interest, which may prove challenging, especially given Vardy’s PR has graciously morphed into a bullet-proof vest for her employer. The upside for Vardy is ‘all publicity is good publicity’, so she’s making national headlines again. But even if Rooney loses this case I think she will win the reputational battle.”


To restore their public reputations, Callan suggests a way out for both parties would be to try a little old-fashioned PR newsjacking. “We are living in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and all this trial does is remind the British public that the excessive era of the WAG is best left to the confines of the early noughties,” she says. “The best route for both of them now is to call a halt to proceedings and donate the millions they’ve wasted on this trial to the Bowelbabe Fund.”

Originally published in PRWeek