24 October 2019

Digital lives

Wagileaks: an investigation

Coleen Rooney’s sleuthing suggests surveillance is no longer the domain of the private investigator – but our entire social circles

By Hannah Jane Parkinson

We have questions for Coleen Rooney. Where is Lord Lucan? What is the true identity of the Zodiac killer? Does she count among her heroes the unsung female codebreakers of Bletchley Park?

On a grey Wednesday morning, as the UK continued its EU banter, Rooney – sometime columnist, influencer and wife of footballer, Wayne – rolled a grenade into the public arena with the elegance of a boules champion.

“This has been a burden in my life for a few years now and finally I have got to the bottom of it……”, Rooney tweeted, attaching a screen-grab of eight perfectly weighted paragraphs of writing. In the post, which has racked up 56,000 retweets and 308,000 favourites, Rooney explained that someone in her social circle had been passing personal information to the Sun newspaper.

Suspecting that a follower of her private Instagram was the culprit, Rooney embarked on a process of elimination. She blocked all accounts, bar one, from being able to view a feature on the app, Stories, and began methodically posting made-up bait. Yarns included: a flooded basement; a possible stint on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing; and a trip to Mexico for experimental fertility treatment.

The fake stories duly make it into the press. The plan worked. The denouement of Rooney’s tale became an instant classic:

“It’s… Rebekah Vardy’s account”.

If Ford Madox Ford’s opening to The Good Soldier – “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” – is the finest first line in literature, then Rooney’s must surely triumph as the greatest coda. Even the official account of the publisher Penguin tweeted that it rivalled the closing lines of The Great Gatsby and Orwell’s 1984.

And for 24 hours, that’s all any of us cared about. In addition to reminding us that the internet can still be a much-needed means of relief in troubled times, Rooney-Vardy served as the perfect example of the often knotty convergence of online and offline friendship. It also underscored that surveillance is no longer the domain of the private investigator – but our entire social circles.

Coleen Rooney (centre) at the Grand National horse race in 2012

The drama had everything: public feuding; dauntless digging by Rooney – who quickly became known as “Wagatha Christie”; and a remarkable celebrity powerplay with the tabloids. Using Google Trends, I checked the most searched UK terms on that revelatory day, and found they were “Rebekah Vardy” and “Coleen Rooney”, outperforming interest in both “Boris Johnson” and “Donald Trump”.

For their front pages, the Sun went with “WAGGRO”; the Mirror chose “ROODUNNIT”; and the Telegraph, “Super sleuth”. US outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, published explainers on Rebekah Vardy, the wife of Leicester City striker Jamie. Listeners to Radio 4 referred to “Wagileaks”, after Wikileaks.

Some called for Rooney to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, announced two days later. One person – OK fine, it was me – noted that if 2018 was the year of star young author Sally Rooney; 2019 belonged to Coleen. The pacing was “Le Carré-esque”, multiple people noted. Some called it The Scousetrap, combining Rooney’s Liverpudlian heritage and Christie’s The Mousetrap.

The Sun's front page after the scandal broke

The wording was significant. In particular: “account”. As the founder of the Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham – currently spearheading the actual defence of our democracy – told me: “Those sitting in the Venn intersection of lawyers and Coleen Rooney fans will have shone a wry smile at a different reveal in the final sentence of her post: that her libel lawyers are likely to have had a look.”

Fellow lawyer and columnist, David Allen Green, commented amusingly: “That note from [Coleen Rooney] showed more intelligence than any single UK official document on Brexit over three years. I know, for I have read them all.”

Celebrity fights have always captured public attention. From the Greek gladiators to the decade-long literary war between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, to, in a thrilling escalation, the fact that a “furious” Jamie Vardy has now unfollowed Wayne Rooney on Instagram.

Wayne Rooney speaks with Jamie Vardy before a 2018 World Cup qualifier

As the American screenwriter Syd Field once said: “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, there is no action.” Shakespeare – our greatest export before Coleen Rooney – knew this. But there is a gender dimension at play here too. The media – and society – has a long history of pitting women against each other (see: every girl band, ever), and there’s little doubt that WAGs (the “wives and girlfriends” of footballers) hold a specific intrigue. I call it the Tesco Express factor, because feasibly one could still bump into them there. Consider the forensic attention that was paid to the partners of England footballers in Baden-Baden during the 2006 World Cup. Or when Alex Ferguson kicked a boot at David Beckham’s head for hanging out with Posh Spice too much and wearing sarongs.

In this latest reanimation of WAG spectator sport, the wives-and-girlfriends themselves, gloriously, did not hold back on their Rooney-Vardy takes. Danielle Lloyd, best known for once dating Teddy Sheringham, called Rooney’s statement “karma” and deemed Vardy “pathetic”. (It’s worth remembering the poetic way in which Sheringham informed a journalist of his break-up with Lloyd: “I am not with her tonight and who is to say I will ever be with her again?”) In a beautiful touch of farce, Christine Lampard (wife of Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard) initially confused Coleen Rooney with her own colleague, fellow Loose Women presenter, Coleen Nolan. Alighting on the correct protagonist, Lampard’s Northern Irish accent made “Rebekah Vardy’s account” sound as though she was saying something very bad indeed about Vardy.

Coleen Rooney and Alex Curran on a night out in Baden-Baden, Germany, 2006

The story’s dominance also spoke to a shift in celebrity journalism – and, of course, journalism in general. In the past decade, the entertainment beat has changed almost beyond recognition. Where showbiz reporters would once land scoops, today the sources of the stories are often the celebrities themselves.

Stars now often have more followers on their social media accounts than the circulation of newspapers. The Sun, which is the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, has a circulation of 1.26 million (as of August’s ABC figures). Coleen Rooney has 1.3 million Twitter followers, and Wayne Rooney has 17 million. Celebrities now get the best of both worlds – a level of editorial control – and traditional outlets who repackage their posts, bringing their message to an even wider audience demographic, particularly older readers of established titles may not be present on social platforms.

For Popbitch, the unbeatable outfit of gossip and scandal reportage, there are two kinds of story that generate interest in the age of social media. “There’s the type that breaks and suddenly everyone will get in touch to give us their related anecdote. Or there’s the type of story where nobody seems to know anything and everyone is hoping to pump us for information. This one was the latter. Coleen’s bombshell accusation – no-one had an inkling that it was in the pipeline, so everyone was scrambling to find out more.”

But there was another key aspect to the Rooney-Vardy success. An aspect that every single person I speak to mentions. Brexit. As Popbitch puts it: “A juicy Wag drama that is made up of nothing but backstage bitching was a real tonic.” As Brenda from Bristol succinctly put it in her viral vox-pop, it can often feel as though “there’s too much politics going on”. Rooney-Vardy might not have drawn the same degree of obsession without Brexit – it quenched a thirst for headlines not emanating from the green benches, and brought us together with the triumph of its storytelling.

“It’s so thrilling”, Sarah Phelps, the lauded writer of the BBC’s Agatha Christie adaptations, tells me on the phone. “This is all amazing. Everything. That incredible mic-drop. Those majestic ellipses! It was the ellipses that made it. The name Wagatha Christie is completely justified. Coleen having her own little Miss Marple moment and then telling this huge audience. It’s genius!”

But the drama turned us all into sleuths. People noticed that Vardy’s Instagram and Twitter accounts were following two Sun journalists, one of whom had authored a Rooney planted story, as well as previous Vardy-related content. This was proof, many said, of Vardy’s close relationship with the paper. (“I’m not being funny”, she had written: “But I don’t need the money. What would I gain from selling stories?”) Vardy, it was speculated, must also be behind the paper’s long-running ‘Secret Wag’ column.

Rebekah Vardy, wife of Jamie, during a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Russia

What Rooney’s fellow gumshoes were learning is that it is easy to glean information from online activity alone. Triangulation can tell even a layperson a vast amount. The Bellingcat investigative team has used open source information to solve such huge stories as the Skripal poisoning. In 2017, then-Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg, in a few expert steps, discovered the secret account of the then-director of the FBI, James Comey. Geotags, time stamps, one tick, two ticks, likes and faves, those little green dots to indicate a live presence. Each tiny packet of digital information can be combed for clues.

Tech companies, keen to keep us on their platforms for as long as possible, facilitate this ability to scrutinise the activity of others with their default settings. But issues can arise with overactive, anxious brains reading too much into, for example, delayed responses (being “left on read”, in digital messaging parlance).

When I put a call out for stories of online-to-offline dramatics, one woman tells me a university friend “liked” a mean tweet about her. She blocked the friend. “She came up to me at a party and cried about it in front of everyone.” Whereas it used to seem trifling to bring up an online bugbear, now it’s a frequent occurrence with friends and partners. Eyebrows of suspicion might be raised at someone commenting on every single post of their friend’s partner, resulting in IRL confrontation. FOMO (fear of missing out) is rampant when it is so easy to see what every single person is doing – and we are encouraged to do so.

Where Rooney excelled herself was patience. Rooney, much more than the average WAG, really is quite a private person. Rooney is reportedly  “happy” with her investigation and “certain” the leaks came from Rebekah Vardy’s account.

But what we all need to know is: did they actually come from……… Rebekah Vardy?

Coleen Rooney pitch-side at Old Trafford in Manchester in 2016

“I can tell you this much: it wasn’t Rebekah”, a source DMs on me Twitter. They work in the newsroom in question. They are backing Vardy’s claim of innocence.

In her own statement, tweeted half an hour after Rooney’s and ending with a broken heart emoji, Vardy wrote: “I wish you had called me if you thought this.” She went on: “I’m disgusted I’m even having to deny this.” In a crisis interview she gave to the Mail Online, Vardy asserted that arguing with Rooney is like “arguing with a pigeon. You can tell it that you are right and it is wrong, but it’s still going to shit in your hair.”

In the Mail Online interview, Vardy said that Rooney, after pointing a foam-finger-sized finger, told her: “I’m not pointing the finger.” To which Vardy countered: “You have just annihilated me in public.” Vardy said that her PR team and an advertising agency have access to her account. Messy bitches who live for the drama have floated the possibility of a hack. But the reality is probably much simpler.

Mike Godfrey runs cybersecurity business, Insinia, and made the news last year for hacking the Twitter account of Louis Theroux to expose security flaws. “When we talk about hacking”, he explains, “We mean password attacks, or things like clicking on a link that installs malware. Often it isn’t that. With Jennifer Lawrence, for instance. She wasn’t hacked.” (Nude photographs from the actor’s iCloud account were horrifically leaked in 2014.) “Her password was guessed, because she put her dog’s name on Twitter.”

Godfrey thinks it won’t be too difficult for Vardy to decipher if others have used her account, depending on her security settings and whether two-factor authentication is in place, and if she uses third-party apps, which are popular on Instagram. Helpfully for the Vardy defence, he says: “When we do investigations into stuff like this, quite often it is the PA. Some people tip off the press and haven’t even fallen out with their boss; they just like that they can do it.”

But Phelps isn’t convinced: “It all just seems a bit ‘oh it was this poor assistant and she doesn’t work here anymore and by the way she goes to another school and look, I have pigeon shit in my hair’.”

Rebekah Vardy and her friend Nicola Mclean (right) in London, 2017

If there’s a dark side to this story, it is the unease of a person called out in public. Vardy was photographed crying on her return from Dubai, where she and Jamie cut a holiday short. She has been mocked for mentioning that she is “heavily pregnant”, as though this were irrelevant. But when I outline the situation to a spokesperson at the maternity charity Tommy’s, their response is that “stress (whatever the cause) can make your focus change, making you less aware of your baby’s movements”.

This concern was raised by Vardy’s key defender, her friend and fellow WAG, Nicola McLean. (McLean’s husband – and I can only apologise in advance for this – plays for a team called “Hashtag United”). Appearing on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, McLean said: “Rebekah cannot stop crying. She’s devastated. And we’re all sitting laughing about it? I’ve seen the impact it’s had, and I don’t think a pregnant woman should be hounded.”

There is no shortage of case studies for the emotional toll public shaming can take. For celebrities, a backlash or pile-on can be particularly fierce. But it would take a real ascetic to resist Rooney-Vardy. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, admitted: “Being the twitter scold, I am normally very sniffy/critical of shenanigans occurring here. But that Coleen Rooney story…!”

Others have suggested that the Vardys had it coming. In the past, both have made racist comments. (Inexplicably, Rebekah Vardy’s 2014 tweet about being followed by a “weird black man” remains on her feed). “The Vardys are not nice people,” sports reporter Nicolle Zamora told Vox.

In contrast, Coleen Rooney was introduced to the public as the shy, high school sweetheart of the teenage prodigy Wayne. She is a patron of the Alder Hey Children’s Charity. It’s unsurprising that, with the evidence Rooney has amassed, as well as her good standing with the public, Team Rooney is on top. Capturing the prevalent mood, one reply to Vardy read: “Just hold your hooves up and admit you’ve been a cow”. There is glee, too, that Jamie Vardy’s “chat shit get banged” karmic adage has come full circle to land at the feet – or the hooves – of his wife.

The wives and girlfriends of Manchester United football players at an event in 2005

As online and offline integrate, there isn’t much difference between someone unfollowing a friend on Instagram and snapping at them over a glass of wine. Sure, not many of us can relate to having our personal lives leaked to a newspaper, but we can get wind of something said in an offshoot WhatsApp group. The hunger is there, then, to see how Rooney-Vardy is – or isn’t – resolved.

So what might a tantalising second half have in store? Jack Cooper, a public relations expert at Ed Hopkins PR, said: “[Vardy] is now making things worse by exposing updates and giving the press more stories. She should sort things personally with Coleen before making any public announcements. And she should most certainly be making it clear that she is making no money from speaking to the media on this situation.”

It’s not out of the realms of possibility, Cooper adds, that the whole thing is a stunt. Vardy has promised a “forensic investigation” to exonerate herself. Legal firm Kingsley Napley has reportedly begun acting on her behalf, requesting the screenshots Rooney says prove it’s…….Rebekah Vardy’s account. (Kingsley Napley once acted for another Rebekah linked with scandal at the Sun: Rebekah Brooks.) As of yesterday, comments on Vardy’s Instagram have been disabled – though she’s gained 50,000 new followers.

Jamie Vardy celebrates with his then fiancee Rebekah, after Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016

All principal characters have been spotted. Wayne Rooney living it up in a nightclub in Washington (where he now plays football). The Vardys glumly attending a friend’s wedding. Coleen Rooney leaving, at 4am, the 40th birthday party of the footballer Wes Brown.

The memes, meanwhile, continue. A Coleen Rooney edition of the game Guess Who? Elsewhere, someone has ingeniously read out the Vardy reply over the beat of Eminem’s ‘Stan’. People announce their intention to dress as “Rebekah Vardy’s account” for Halloween. There are mirthful suggestions of a national holiday to commemorate what has been described as the best ever day on Twitter (“We call it Vardy Grass”).

As with Jamie Vardy and his famous surges forward on the counter attack – this one could run and run.

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading

– The Guardian’s Marina Hyde was present when the WAGs really broke into our collective consciousness, at Baden-Baden during the 2006 World Cup. “The time has come,” she wrote, “to accept that resistance is futile.”

– The Sun newspaper’s Secret WAG column can be found here. There has been some speculation, after recent events, that Rebekah Vardy is the Secret WAG in question.

– Ashley Feinberg’s successful hunt for James Comey’s secret Twitter account is mentioned in Hannah’s essay. Feinberg has repeated the trick in recent days – except, this time, for Mitt Romney.