Vardy v Rooney: The Instagram Story Perils

Social Media has had an incredible impact on the world, in both a positive and negative way. But when it is used to share and leak personal data to the media, what does the law say? Here, Siobhan Kerley-Dunne looks at the Defamation Act and the case of Vardy v Rooney.

Research by GWI (GlobalWebIndex) has revealed that as of July 2022, 59% of the world’s population uses social media. The rise of social media has had an extremely positive impact on business, marketing and personal connections. However, aside from the obvious risk of embarrassment from your Mum’s friend commenting on your Facebook post, social media presents litigation risks which are often overlooked.

Social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allow people to create and share their own posts, as well as share/repost those created by other users on the site. The ability to share posts from creators can lead to posts going “viral”, i.e. being shared by and therefore seen by a large volume of users globally.

Under the Defamation Act 2013, if a post on social media includes a false statement about an individual or company that has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to said individual or company’s reputation, a libel claim can be brought against the creator of the post, as well as any creator that shares it. Often, individuals and companies can find themselves paying out large sums in damages to successful claimants.

Clause 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 does somewhat restrict the ability to sue for defamation by stating the requirement for any statement to have caused or be likely to cause “serious harm” to the reputation of the claimant to be deemed defamatory. Further, in order for a body that trades for profit to meet the criteria for “serious harm” the statement made must have caused or is likely to cause the body serious financial loss.

In the widely reported case of Vardy v Rooney [2022] EWHC 2017 (QB), Rebekah Vardy brought a £1million case in the High Court against Coleen Rooney for defamation arising from a statement Coleen Rooney posted on her Instagram story. Rooney’s now infamous statement told of the amateur detective work she had undertaken (ironically by blocking all but one account from viewing the story using the app’s privacy features) to deduce who had been selling false stories about her to the media.

Notably, while Rooney’s post was carefully worded, the iconic “it’s……….Rebekah Vardy’s account” was found not to be enough to avoid a lawsuit. The Judge ruled that Vardy could pursue her defamation case as the “ordinary reader” could deduce from the statement that Rooney was implying it was Vardy herself who had “frequently abused her status as a trusted follower of Ms Rooney’s personal Instagram account”.

Vardy was unsuccessful in her case, with the Judge accepting that Rooney’s Instagram story post was “substantially true” and “a matter of public interest” due to “the undesirable practice of information (in the nature of mere gossip) about celebrities’ private lives being disclosed to the press by trusted individuals”. As Vardy was the claimant in the matter, she was not ordered to pay damages directly to Rooney, rather 90% of Rooney’s legal costs (approximately £1.5million) as well as her own entire legal bill and those of some of the journalists who were brought into the matter.

The evidence in the case consisted of social media posts as well as WhatsApp messages between several parties. As with text messages and WhatsApp messages, posts from social media accounts such as Instagram are admissible as evidence in court, regardless of whether they originated from an account set to “private” (i.e. only approved followers of the account can access its content).

With many of us sharing our personal and professional lives using apps such as Instagram and LinkedIn, now more than ever it is crucial that we understand the potential consequences of what we post, irrespective of whether from a business page or even if it’s ………. your account.

  • James Corlett

    Managing Partner