Anton Savage: ‘If the cross-examination of Heard goes in Depp’s favour, it will provide a public victory immeasurably valuable to him’
As Johnny Depp’s legal battle rumbles on, the Hollywood megastar is drawing more and more attention to the kind of accusations no celebrity’s career could previously have been expected to bear
Johnny Depp is defying a once immutable rule: no one gets their reputation back. Even when the subjects of public scandal are exonerated and vindicated, they remain clothed for perpetuity in the rags of their previous image.
Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of labor, Raymond James Donovan, put it best when, in 1987, he reacted to being cleared of charges of larceny and fraud. The verdict in his case was so resounding that members of the jury stood and applauded as it was read. When the media asked for his reaction, he said sadly: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
At least back in Donovan’s day, time was a healer. As the years morphed into decades, the victim of reputational homicide could hope recollections would cloud. That no longer happens. Now a social media army of the self-righteous unendingly re-attaches the same false allegations to the victim; “Citizen journalism” is the term often employed – although a synonym for it might be “Citizen wilful defamation”.
Over the years, people have fought the loss of their reputations with limited success. Perhaps the most spirited was the late Max Mosley, president of the FIA, motor sport’s governing body. He sued the News of the World for suggesting he had been in an S&M orgy with several leather-clad, jackbooted prostitutes wearing Nazi insignia.
His contention was simple; yes, it was entirely true he had been in an S&M orgy with several leather-clad, jack-booted prostitutes. However, none of them was wearing Nazi insignia. He won. And he came out swinging in public, giving several interviews about the case. The result: a public profile few would envy. Sure, he might be a philanderer, but at least we knew no one got within spanking distance of Mosley if they publicly supported National Socialism.
Because of this impossibility of regaining a reputation, those faced with false allegations have always been in the fire-fighting business – get the blaze out before it consumes everything, then live in whatever part of the house is intact when it’s all over. If you’re successful, you won’t sustain too much damage and your life can continue.
This is where Depp has broken the mould. He is doing what no one has done before – rather than minimising allegations made against him, he’s transforming them into a global three-ringed Barnum & Bailey circus extravaganza. He is drawing more and more attention to the kind of accusations no Hollywood star’s career could previously have been expected to bear. And it’s working.
It’s working because of an interplay of factors we have never seen before. First, he is suing not a publication, but a person, which means he is not taking on an entity that “buys its ink in barrels”. If he loses, his ex-wife Amber Heard cannot come after him with attacks and exposés like a tabloid paper might (the Sun, for instance, waited 14 years to declare Max Mosley an “enemy of the free press” in his obituary.)
Second, Depp’s lawsuit is televised, so it doesn’t matter if he loses with the jury, it matters that he wins with the public. Lastly, and most importantly, the televisation of the lawsuit feeds social media. It’s tapas for the Twitterati: a constant stream of hot little morsels consumed and shared with delight.
The effect is remarkable, a social media response in equal parts massive, pervasive and supportive. It’s impossible to tell how real or manufactured it is — grassroots or AstroTurf – but ultimately it doesn’t matter; like the crowds who cheer for him outside the courtroom or the people who stand behind Donald Trump at rallies wearing ‘Women for Trump’ or ‘Blacks for Trump’ T-shirts, whether their motivation is passion or a pay cheque is irrelevant. The imagery works.
Depp may not win his case, but if the cross-examination of Heard goes in his favour, it will provide him with a public victory that is immeasurably more valuable to him. And it will set a new precedent for how celebs defend themselves: the spirited reputational defence played out in court for the jury of social media. It might just be that, nestled in the spot where televised courtrooms and Twitter overlap, is that mythical place Raymond James Donovan yearned for: the office you go to to get your reputation back.