The Hulk Hogan sex tape case is over – but its damaging legacy lives on

Arwa Mahdawi
Photograph: Steve Nesius/AP

The fight is over, but it is not entirely clear who won: Hulk Hogan has finally settled a sex-tape lawsuit that has been dragging on for years. The former pro wrestler, whose real name is Terry Bollea, had been seeking $110m (£94m) from talkshow hosts at Florida-based Cox Radio, who he accused of leaking a video showing him having sex and using racist language. The case was supposed to go to a jury trial next January but a confidential settlement reached on Thursday means that will now be avoided.

I don’t want to think about Hogan naked any more than you do, so let’s skip over the sordid details of the case. The most important thing about this sleazy saga is the trail of destruction it has left in its wake. Hogan’s sex tape wasn’t just a private legal battle; it morphed into a proxy war between a billionaire and the media. The wrestler’s personal affairs have ended up having serious public ramifications.

In 2015, Hogan sued the gossip website Gawker for posting a video of the wrestler having sex with a friend’s estranged wife. The billionaire Facebook board member Peter Thiel quickly seized on the case as an opportunity to settle his own grudge with Gawker, which had outed him as gay in 2007 and criticised his business dealings. Thiel spent millions secretly bankrolling Hogan’s case – apparently the wrestler himself had no idea who was funding him – and Gawker was driven to bankruptcy. Hogan got $31m from the site but still wasn’t satisfied; he went after Cox Radio as well.

Gawker was far from perfect. It was often snarky and mean-spirited; it should never have outed Thiel and it shouldn’t have published Hogan’s sex tape. But the site was also courageous. It held powerful people to account. It was beholden to nobody. A pro-Trump billionaire bankrupting a media empire with relative ease sent a chilling message to journalists. Thiel and Hogan didn’t just take down Gawker, they dealt free speech a worrying blow.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist