12th April 2022 saw the beginning of the Depp v Heard defamation trial, in which Johnny Depp is suing Amber Heard for $50 million for implying that he abused her in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, which he claims impacted his career. Cora-Laine Moynihan discusses.
Four weeks of testimonies, audio recordings, video clips, and articles were presented throughout the first half of the trial – of which all were streamed to the public. This choice to stream the trial leads to the question: is it right to stream trials about domestic violence to an uninvolved audience?
Depp’s testimony was presented over the first four days of the trial, sharing his perspective of his relationship with his ex-wife, Heard. His statements denied any instance of alleged abuse towards her and claimed that it was actually him who was the victim rather than Heard as her article alongside the 2020 Depp v The Sun trial suggested. Producing audio recordings in support of his statements, Depp and his lawyers swayed many in the audience of millions in support of the actor.
Social media was quickly bombarded with snippets of the trial edited with music, text and sound effects
Until 4th of May 2022, the trial jolted between Depp’s attorneys laying out evidence of Heard’s alleged abuse, and Heard’s lawyers depicting Depp’s past drug and alcohol abuse as a trigger for his alleged abuse. This focus on Depp’s side of the story quickly biased the public and led to a strong opposition towards Heard, even without any testimonies from her side existing yet.
Social media was quickly bombarded with snippets of the trial edited with music, text, and sound effects as well as a number of memes showing disdain towards Heard.
Domestic abuse trials are often traumatic and deeply unsettling for all involved as the lawyers battle against one another for their preferred outcome. Often, the roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ are blurred to make it more difficult to make a verdict. This blurring has occurred throughout the Depp v Heard trial and has been worsened by the involvement of the public.
The wide-reaching support towards Depp shakes up the common dismissive response to male survivors
At the start of May, Heard fired her crisis public relations firm Precision Strategies out of frustration towards the negative responses in the press and online. With her side of the story still missing from the trial, the world had sided with Depp and villainised her.
Considering the defamation trial revolves around claims of domestic abuse, the public’s involvement is problematic.
On one hand, the wide-reaching support towards Depp shakes up the common dismissive response to male survivors. Depp’s own decision to open up about his experience could influence other male survivors to report or talk about their own. According to the charity Mankind Initiative, 49% of male survivors do not tell anyone they are a victim of domestic abuse, and are 19% less likely to tell anyone than female survivors are, meaning that the discussions created by Depp’s experience of abuse are vital to changing the attitude towards male survivors.
The allegations thrown back and forth about both celebrities opens issues around victim-blaming
On the other hand, the quick conclusion by viewers that Depp has done no wrong and Heard is a monster could have a dire impact on survivors of domestic violence who are unsure about reporting their abuse. According to CSEW data for the year ending March 2018, only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in the previous 12 months reported the abuse to the police.
Watching Heard, who over the past few years has advocated against domestic abuse and spoken about her own experiences, be turned into the ‘abuser’ may deter survivors from reporting out of fear of the same thing happening to them.
There’s also concern about being believed. The allegations thrown back and forth about both celebrities opens issues around victim-blaming and the need for evidence when often there is none. Many in the public audience have determined Depp as the victim, completely dismissing anything Heard brings to the table, even though it is not their place to make this conclusion.
With the building of hatred towards Heard, survivors who may have similar experiences to what she has alleged may again feel fear or uncertainty about coming forward, worried the same treatment will occur to them.
Taking all of this into account, is it right to stream trials about domestic violence to an uninvolved audience? Should the public have access to such a controversial trial?
In light of the public response to the trial, the simple answer is no. No, it is not right to stream such a trial. No, the public should not have access to or be involved in it.
The defamation suit is no longer a trial. It has become a show
Although the trial is raising awareness of abuse and highlighting biases towards traditional ideas of ‘victim’ and ‘abuser’, the public’s involvement has created a toxic atmosphere around the issue. Rather than hearing all testimonies and acknowledging all evidence before making a conclusion, the public has collected together on one side of a coin to bully and belittle the other. If their conclusion is correct, do viewers of the trial really think that Depp would support this behaviour? To cause harm to others? To become abusers, themselves?
The defamation suit is no longer a trial. It has become a show. Something to entertain the masses and something that the audience treats like any other form of entertainment. They meme it. They laugh at it. They theorise about it. They expect to influence it with their input.
But, in the process of their consumption, the audience has forgotten what the trial truly is about – a very real and very unhealthy relationship between two people. One that they were not a part of.
Domestic violence is not something to joke about, nor make swift judgements towards. As the Depp – Heard defamation trial draws nearer to an end, one of the biggest mistakes made throughout it was and will always be streaming it to the public.
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