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Jennifer O’Connell: Wagatha trial shows a tabloid culture that despises women

It is disturbing that tales of catfighting women have caused a media frenzy

It is hard to muster any real sympathy for the entitled and lamentably unself-aware pair at the centre of it, but there is something disturbing about the media feeding frenzy surrounding the so-called Wagatha Christie trial.

Sure, it offers what might be the best escape from the relentlessly grim news landscape of the past two years – short of, say, leaping into the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

In case that is precisely where you've been, a recap: Rebekah Vardy, a model and media personality who is married to a footballer, is suing Coleen Rooney, the wife of another footballer (for once the identities of the men are not important).

Vardy claims she was defamed when Rooney publicly accused her of leaking stories to the press, following a complex sting operation on Instagram – hence the "Wagatha" bit.

If they had a good season, a Wag might emerge at the end of it with a perfume, a book deal, a reality TV show or a quixotically named baby

The case playing out in the London high court has it all: sleuthing, feuding, football, friendship, pigeon jokes, a Peter Andre cameo and a mobile phone with crucial evidence that mysteriously toppled into the North Sea. Rooney has reportedly already signed the inevitable contract with Netflix.

But I can’t be alone in finding aspects of the saturation coverage – the barely-disguised glee when Vardy bursts into tears in the witness box or fails to understand a jibe made at her expense by Rooney’s Oxford-educated lawyer; the lack of concern for Vardy’s agent who is now reported to be receiving psychiatric care; the ugly internalised sexism in some of Vardy’s text messages about Rooney – all a bit disquieting.

It was Rooney who set Vardy up and Vardy who decided to take on this spectacularly ill-advised defamation case, so yes, this is unquestionably a car crash of their own making. But in a broader sense, the Wagatha Christie trial is a direct product of a tabloid culture that despises women.

It was the tabloids who turned Rooney from a 16-year-old in a Puffa jacket, plaits and school uniform in 2003 into a phenomenon the Sun was calling a “Top Chav” just two years later. It was the tabloids who invented the concept of Wags: the very thin, very orange wives and girlfriends of footballers who made their debut in Baden-Baden during the 2006 World Cup. As the moniker suggests, these women were not meant to be regarded as individuals in their own right.

Their job was to sell newspapers by shopping, drinking, dancing on tables, looking good in shorts and generally being the adjunct of a man whose own job – kicking a bit of synthetic leather around a pitch – was, some might say, no less futile. They were, as the Scotsman delicately put it in 2019 (rather than, as you might be forgiven for thinking, sometime during the late-Triassic period), essentially regarded as “on-call sexual helpmeets”.

If they had a good season, a Wag might emerge at the end of it with a perfume, a book deal, a reality TV show or a quixotically named baby. It was a throwback to a 1950s model of womanhood, and we were supposed to believe it was all in good sport.

The truth was a lot darker. The arrival of Wag culture unleashed the commercialised stalking and harassment of women on a much larger scale than ever seen previously. In the run-up to the trial last week, paparazzi have been sharing their memories of how they chased these very young women down streets and into nightclubs to get photographs. "They were in Germany, they were in a hotel, they were all in their bikinis and short skirts . . . every night they were going out getting absolutely legless, jumping up and down on top of tables," photographer George Bamby fondly reminisced to the Guardian's Today in Focus podcast.

The real losers, though, are us: the public who remain depressingly willing to be titillated by tales of catfighting women

The women might have been prey but they loved it, he insisted. “It became a sort of competition between the girls who could get the most coverage.” One of the footballer’s wives “made me go down the road and shoot a set of pictures of her because no one else was interested in her”. To listen to him, the paparazzi were practically performing a public service.

He went on to remember the glory days when getting a set of pictures of a teenage Rooney “going to the supermarket, shopping . . . could fetch 12 or 15 grand”.

That is the grim background against which these events are playing out. And of course it is, as ever, the tabloids who stand to be the biggest beneficiaries here.

You could make the argument that Vardy at least managed to play them at their own game for a while, allegedly liaising with her agent to set up paparazzi shots, and that both she and Rooney have been complicit in stoking up the frenzy. But that’s like saying a turkey who overeats in the run-up to Christmas is playing the farmer at his own game. In the end, only one of you is getting served up on a plate.

At this point, convention demands a declaration that there will be no real winners in any of this. But of course there are already plenty of winners – the media; the lawyers; the celebrity agents; Netflix; the production companies who will make the many podcasts, documentaries and miniseries; and perhaps even Rooney and Vardy themselves, who will make a few quid out of it whatever way the verdict goes.

But how much profile or money does any one person need? And at what point is the price too high? For Vardy, you’d have to assume that point is right about now.

The real losers, though, are us: the public who – as we approach the quarter way mark of the 21st century – remain depressingly willing to be titillated by tales of catfighting women, even when the tale is one as riddled with sexism and class snobbery as this.