Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney’s libel battle is a “detective story” and “essentially about betrayal”, the High Court has heard.
In a viral social media post in October 2019, Mrs Rooney, 36, said she had carried out a “sting operation” and accused Mrs Vardy, 40, of leaking “false stories” about her private life to the press.
The wife of former England star Wayne Rooney was dubbed “Wagatha Christie” when she publicly claimed an account behind three fake stories she had posted on her personal Instagram account with The Sun newspaper was Mrs Vardy’s.
Mrs Vardy, who is married to Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, denies leaking stories to the media and is suing her fellow footballer’s wife for libel, while Mrs Rooney is defending the claim on the basis her post was “substantially true”.
Both women arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Tuesday for the first day of a seven-day trial of the legal action, with Mrs Vardy attending flanked by security while Mrs Rooney arrived with her husband also 36, who also played for Everton and Manchester United and now manages Derby County.
Outlining Mrs Rooney’s defence case on Tuesday afternoon, her barrister David Sherborne told Mrs Justice Steyn, who is hearing the trial: “In essence, this is a detective story, and like any good detective story, you never find a person standing over the body with a smoking gun.”
He said there was “inference”, telling Mrs Justice Steyn: “You do not have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt, you just have to conclude that it is more likely than not that Mrs Vardy was responsible, either directly or through Ms (Caroline – Mrs Vardy’s friend and agent) Watt.”
Mr Sherborne continued: “If (Rebekah Vardy) gave Ms Watt the gun and the bullets, told her where to target them, told her what was happening and when, that makes her just as responsible as the person who pulled the trigger.
“To use an analogy, it is like hiring a hitman or woman.”
He said there were, in text message exchanges between Mrs Vardy and Ms Watt, examples of the pair discussing leaking other people’s private information.
He added: “Mrs Vardy is just as responsible for leaking information which someone else doesn’t want shared with the press, even if she doesn’t pull the trigger and send it across herself.
“Of course, we say the same is true of leaks from Mrs Rooney’s private Instagram account.”
Mr Sherborne said there were “only two real suspects” and that any suggestion someone may have hacked into Mrs Rooney’s account to access her private information was “wild speculation, wild theory, because there is no evidence whatsoever to support it”.
He added: “There is plenty of evidence, inference and circumstance we say, that Mrs Vardy knew and approved of Ms Watt (leaking private information).”
The barrister said that text exchanges show that Mrs Vardy and her “PR, agent and close friend” worked “hand in glove” together.
Both footballers’ wives sat just feet apart in court, in front of their barristers, with Mrs Vardy wearing a smart navy dress and Mrs Rooney, accompanied by her husband, dressed in a black suit with a navy top with a moon boot on her left foot.
Mr Sherborne told the court Mrs Rooney was appearing at the trial “not because she wants to, she’s here because she has to be”.
“She’s been brought here because of something she wrote,” he added. She did not want to have to write it any more than she wants to be here.”
In his written submissions, Mr Sherborne said there had been “widespread and significant destruction or loss of evidence” in the case, which notably include the loss of Ms Watt’s phone in the North Sea.
“To borrow from Wilde, to lose one significant set of documents may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two, carelessness, but to lose 10? That must be concealment,” he wrote.
Mr Sherborne later argued that Mrs Rooney had proved her case “despite the deliberate destruction of evidence” by Mrs Vardy and Ms Watt.
The barrister continued in written submissions: “Despite the lies of both the claimant and Ms Watt, it is clear, at least on the balance of probabilities, which is all that is necessary, that the leaks arose from the habitual and established practice of the claimant: leaking information about those she knew via Ms Watt to The Sun and others.
“This was a sustained betrayal of the defendant’s trust.”
However, Mrs Vardy’s barrister, Hugh Tomlinson QC, said the suggestion that Mrs Vardy and Ms Watt were involved in a “conspiracy” and “campaign of deletion” in relation to evidence in the case is “completely baseless”.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Tomlinson told the court that it had not been suggested “that Mrs Vardy was anywhere near the North Sea at the time” Ms Watt’s phone fell into the water, nor that she “knew anything about it”.
He said there was a “credible, ordinary, boring explanation” behind media files on Mrs Vardy’s WhatsApp no longer being available.
“It’s a very well-known and common feature in everyone’s life that from time-to-time electronic documents are lost for all kinds of reasons,” he said, adding: “This is something that happens to us all that sometimes documents are lost.”
Mr Tomlinson claimed the issue had affected Mrs Rooney too, telling the court that her PR’s email account was deleted in February 2020 and as a result “a crucial email about one of the articles has gone”.
Mr Tomlinson also said Mrs Vardy had to bring the libel claim to “vindicate her reputation”.
He said in written submissions: “The allegation in the post was and remains false: Mrs Vardy had not leaked information about Mrs Rooney or her friends and family to the Sun newspaper from her private Instagram account.
“Mrs Rooney did not have the ‘irrefutable’ evidence that she claimed to have had: her so-called ‘careful investigation’ was nothing of the sort.
“If anyone had been leaking information from Mrs Rooney’s private Instagram this was not done with Mrs Vardy’s knowledge or approval.”
The barrister also said that Mrs Rooney’s alleged investigation into the leaks “was in fact a pre-determined blinkered operation with the aim of ‘outing’ Mrs Vardy”.
Mrs Rooney is defending the claim on the basis of truth and public interest.
The fake stories Mrs Rooney planted on her Instagram during the sting operation featured her travelling to Mexico for a “gender selection” procedure, her planning to return to TV, and the basement flooding at her home.
In a now infamous post on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, she wrote: “I have saved and screenshotted all the original stories which clearly show just one person has viewed them.
“It’s ………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.”