The Broadcast of the Depp-Heard Trial and Its Impact on Domestic Abuse Narratives

The Depp-Heard trial is now part of the pop-culture fabric and its impact will be longstanding. There is no clearer example to highlight the problematic nature of broadcasting trials of such high public interest.

By Virginia Méndez 

Would have things been different if the Depp-Heard Trial had not been televised? That question is relevant not only for the verdict of the trial, but mostly for the broader effect it had on society.

This trial was not the first one between the two actors. In 2022 Johnny Depp lost a libel lawsuit again the Sun newspaper; although Amber Heard was not the main defendant, she was present as a witness for the newspaper. The US trial, however, drew more attention and certainly had a larger impact due to the fact that it was televised and therefore available for consumption as morbid entertainment.

Penney Azcarate, the chief judge of the Fairfax County Circuit Court who presided over the trial, was met with a lot of criticism over her decision to allow Court TV to televise.

As part of their argument against the broadcasting, Amber Heard’s legal team highlighted that cameras are specifically forbidden in a court room for the testimony of “victims and families of victims of sexual offenses.” However, judge Azcarate dismissed it because the trial was a civil case. It is relevant to note that Johnny Depp’s lawyers argued for it to be televised.

Explaining her position, Azcarate stated that she was getting a lot of media requests and felt that it was her responsibility to the observers. “I don’t see any good cause not to do it”, she concluded. However, even though there was not a ‘legal’ cause not to do it, there should have been a moral one, and that should have been enough as she had full autonomy on the decision.

Even though the trial was about defamation, domestic and sexual abuse were the key arguments, and it must have been understood that the global broadcast of this trial would have a large impact on victims. The way that social media might have influenced the jury was also heavily overlooked. Even though jurors have refuted such an impact during public interviews, the way that social media users rallied behind Johnny Depp is undisputable.

The decision to televise allowed the most private details of two peoples’ lives to be broadcast as a reality TV show. The public devoured, in real time, the dismantling of a lot of the progress that the #MeToo movement has built through the years as well as the perpetuation of some of the most damaging myths around sexual and domestic abuse.

Televising this trial has allowed some of the biggest misconceptions about domestic and sexual abuse to be reinforced around pub tables, small chats with friends and family and most predominantly on social media. From “If he was abusing her why didn’t she leave?” to “that is not how real victims act”.

What is worse, for many commentators who diminish or disregard violence against women on social media, Amber Heard’s loss reinforced the arguments they use on a regular basis. The verdict feels to many as an official validation of their repeated claims about women lying, women being as bad if not worse than men – despite the existence of statistics on rape, violence against women and femicide.

The way the trial has been reported also reinforced the idea of ‘the perfect victim’, the one and only victim worthy of compassion and justice. The selfless woman, easy to like and submissive; the one who, even though is doing everything she can to avoid it, still gets abused. When a woman gets raped or abused, society starts questioning how much of the blame is hers to take, we wonder if she provoked it, if she did enough to stop it. Women survivors of sexual abuse need to constantly prove that they did not deserve it. Televising the Depp-Heard defamation trial unapologetically resurfaced that lie to the public eye, to the point that the public was no longer following a defamation trial but a judgement as to whether Amber Heard deserved to be abused or not.

This comes back to the moral justification of broadcasting this trial. The way #TeamDepp and #TeamHeard were arguing online as well as way that media covered it has set us back many years. On the one hand victims of domestic abuse may be wondering whether they too deserved to be abused if they too would fail the ‘likeability’ test if their whole life were put up for scrutiny. They may be dissuaded to talk, and question if the ordeal of talking is even worth undertaking. On the other hand, abusers can more easily find justification for their actions and feel validated.

When the verdict was announced, Refuge, a British non-governmental organisation, published a letter with their concerns regarding the trial and the verdict:

‘The verdict sends a chilling message to many survivors of domestic abuse that their experiences are invalid and open to public scrutiny. Refuge stands in solidarity with all survivors of domestic abuse and believes that all survivors must be believed and supported.’

‘To every survivor who has been impacted by this trial, and is afraid that no one will believe them, know that we do.’

This trial tells men that they do not have to put up with women fighting back, that they can turn this around and still become the heroes of their stories, the ones deserving the sympathy and support. This trial became another tool to keep women in line. It should not come as a surprise that Marilyn MansonJohnny Depp’s matching-tattoo buddy, is also suing for defamation against those who held him accountable.

Patriarchy and misogyny create a scenario for male violence against women. The #MeToo movement is a natural response to it and it has generated a sense of sisterhood, trust and re-empowerment of women. Inevitably it has also created a threat to the men that are scared of being held accountable. This trial has shifted the fear back to the victims. It sent a clear message for women to know their place, to remember that the reputation of a man is more valuable than their right to speak up, to own their stories without fear of repercussions.

Throughout the coverage of the trial, it was often forgotten that the trial was never about domestic abuse but about defamation due to an opinion piece that Amber Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018. In that article Heard talked about her experience as a woman and victim of domestic abuse in the public eye. The article neither mentions Johnny Depp nor gives examples from their marriage.

Thanks to the efforts of Depp’s legal team to polemicise this otherwise private case, as well as the short-sightedness of judge Azcarate’s decision to televise, the trial is now part of the pop-culture fabric and its impact will be longstanding. There is no clearer example to highlight the problematic nature of broadcasting trials of such high public interest.

Photo Credits: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock