Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. (By Arrangement)
The Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, famous for his role as a pirate, won a defamation trial in which his former wife Amber Heard has been ordered to pay a little over $10 million. But the trial by jury leaves too many questions unanswered — primarily over whether this was a trial by jury or was it a trial in the court of public opinion with the social media being the judge, jury and executioner?
Amber Heard, accused of naming Depp as a perpetrator of domestic violence in a newspaper op-ed article in which she did not even name him, was excoriated in the social media, demonised and handed death threats on a daily basis and even told her baby would be microwaved.
Curiously, Depp had lost a similar case he had filed in the UK after a tabloid had named him a "wife-beater". The British judge had seen through the tactics of an aggressive libel suit as a PR strategy by a famous man who may have been the aggressor more than victim in physical exchanges between a couple in a bellicose relationship.
The trial in the US was televised, rendering the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia a coliseum-like sports field. Depp’s defence team milked the social media, especially as seen in a hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp generating 19 billion views.
The US system in which jurors are formally instructed not to read about the case online appears a sham as they had weekends off to spend with families when they could hear all about the world’s most watched trial with millions logging in on live TV.
The greatest fear in all this is whether women who are victims of domestic violence will ever come forward again to face a courtroom that might tend to disbelieve them. What the US may have experienced is a backlash against the viral #MeToo movement in which many men were in the dock.
A male-dominated society may have struck back but the end result is hardly encouraging as women are likely to bottle it in if they face violence at home rather than face unfair scrutiny. This comes at a time when domestic assault is chronically underreported to the extent of just two in five cases brought to the notice of the police in the US.