Do they overshadow important legal issues? And do they discredit the experiences of victims?
Over the past number of years, there has been a wide range of cases taken against some of our generation's most popular and iconic celebrities. Each of these has generated a media presence that in such high-profile cases can create more damage than good.
One prevalent case in recent media can be seen as a shining example of this – the highly publicised Depp v Heard case. This recent case - which centred around a claim of defamation between Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard - can be seen as one of the most high profile domestic violence and defamation media cases of all time, due to the sheer amount of publicity it received.
This case stemmed from a larger issue, as there had already been quite a prominent media presence surrounding the two actors. In early 2016, Depp and Heard filed for divorce after a 15 month marriage with a domestic abuse allegation that captured widespread media attention. After an attempt for a restraining order, a UK libel case against Depp and several expensive settlements the issues were settled until 2018, when an op-ed by Heard was published. A case ensued in which Depp sued Heard for defamation as a result of an article in the Washington Post, in which she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”.
Despite no mention by name, it was argued that within the article there was a clear implication that Depp abused her over the course of their marriage. As a result, Depp sued, in which he succeeded and was awarded $15mil damages. Despite a countersuit and appeal by Heard, a settlement was made. Heard stated that she made the choice to settle “having lost faith in the American legal system”. In what has now become one of the most sensationalised celebrity cases in recent years, the trial drew widespread public commentary both legally and through the media, and the trial process was heavily scrutinised throughout.
Everyone seemed to have formed an opinion, everyone knew what was going on and everyone wanted to see what would happen. This sensationalised case was the topic on the tip of everyone’s tongues for months and many who had never heard of defamation or cared about the issue from a legal perspective suddenly had an opinion on the two actors and who should ‘win’ this legal ‘battle’. In fact, among younger generations in particular, the topic was discussed on TikTok, with users creating videos that almost glamourised Depp’s presence in court as well as praising his legal team. Meanwhile, Heard was degraded through memes and comedy posts. The online discourse around this case in a way completely overshadowed the actual legal issues in the case and has proven to be problematic.
This mockery of such a serious issue, particularly with cases concerning abuse allegations, “serves to dehumanise and trivialise what is a painful and sad situation no matter what side of the fence you are on”. This could also bring about knock-on effects in cases like this, where domestic abuse is at the forefront — especially where there has been such a heavy but ridiculed discourse like this case. It could risk deterrence among survivors to report and speak out on the issue for fear of mockery like this, for fear of being painted in a similar light.
For example, Mel Magazine stated: “to read the posts, you’d think Heard was on trial for a slew of violent crimes against Depp, not being sued over a newspaper column”. In a way which this case definitely demonstrates, the media should not be so quick to be so critical of one side or the other, and there is always more than the binary perspective that is seen online, in particular with celebrity cases. It can be easy to get caught up more in the status of the figures rather than the actual issues at hand, but it is essential to remember that while they are celebrity figures, the issues are still real and not something to ridicule.
This case in a way glamourised the legal process in the media and pitted the two against each other in every aspect, even though the outcome of the case had little impact other than the personal fortunes of the two. This overshadows the actual legal issue and brings a certain discredit to the legal system when this legal “battle” is so sensationalised over the media, meaning the true issues are overlooked.
Furthermore, celebrity trials such as these often overshadow serious legal issues that receive less publication in the media. For example, research shows news coverage of the Depp v Heard trial generated more engagement on social media than articles about the Supreme Court and reproductive issues at the time, even despite the controversial and highly protested overturning of Roe v Wade taking place around the same time. This demonstrates that the media seems more concerned with cheap stories about celebrity figures being prosecuted rather than legal issues that will have a serious impact on our society as a whole.
As a whole, it is essential to remember that media coverage can warp our views of what the legal process is actually like, as the portrayal of celebrity trials, no matter the issue at hand, are often glamourised. It is important to remember that there are people behind these issues, and that there are many experiences of victims that could be harmed by this over-dramatised portrayal of serious legal matters.