THE preliminary hearing for the trial of the decade took place at the High Court in London on Friday. Meghan, the publicity-hating Duchess of Sussex who can’t bear being out of the limelight, is suing Associated Newspapers, owner of the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online, for publishing extracts of a handwritten note she sent her father, Thomas Markle, in August 2018, three months after she married Prince Harry. Mr Markle was unable to attend the wedding and walk his daughter up the aisle owing to a serious heart condition. The note, of which Meghan made a copy for herself, reportedly accused him of breaking her heart ‘into a million pieces’ by talking to the press. She has not spoken to him since.
She is claiming damages for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act. She is not the first royal to fall out with the press, but this is the first dispute to end up in court.
The timing of the preliminary hearing wasn’t ideal. Owing to the coronavirus shutdown, Mr Justice Warby sat in the court while David Sherborne, QC for the duchess, and Antony White, QC for Associated Newspapers, appeared via videolink. It inevitably drained the court of its usual drama, but perhaps contributed to an announcement Meghan and Harry made a few days earlier. They pompously declared they would have a ‘zero engagement policy’ with certain tabloids, a warning that newspapers should not print anything negative about them.
During the hearing Mr White applied to have allegations struck out that the newspaper had ‘stirred up’ a ‘rift’ between Meghan and her father. He also queried how the Duchess could state that her estranged father, whom she has called a liar, was ‘harassed, humiliated, manipulated and exploited’ when she had not spoken to him since the wedding.
In fact Thomas Markle kept quiet about the letter for six months. He said he changed his mind after feeling ‘vilified’ by the revelations in the US magazine People and gave the letter to the Mail on Sunday, telling the paper: ‘I have to defend myself. I only released parts of the letter because other parts were so painful. The letter didn’t seem loving to me. I found it hurtful.’ His story was published on February 10 last year, and on October 1 the Sussexes confirmed that they would take legal action against Associated Newspapers.
People magazine has said the piece it published, in which the existence of the letter was disclosed, came about after five of Meghan’s most intimate friends agreed to be interviewed, something she states she knew nothing about. Perhaps it was unwise for her to have trusted any of them with such a ‘revealing’ letter. In time we may discover whether she has cut that individual out of her life for bringing the letter into the public domain.
Meghan herself is not averse to giving deeply personal interviews to selected journalists. During the Duke and Duchess’s tour of South Africa in October last year, she spoke at length to ITV’s Tom Bradby, bemoaning the fact that she was ‘existing, not living’. Yesterday the Mail on Sunday revealed that both Meghan and Harry, who equally hates the press, have given interviews to journalists Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand for a biography which will tell the couple’s ‘real’ story. It is provisionally entitled Thoroughly Modern Royals: The Real World of Harry and Meghan.
The full hearing of the Duchess’s claim against Associated Newspapers will be at some time in the future. Disregarding the fact that washing personal linen in public can be both costly and damaging to an individual’s reputation, Meghan’s barrister stated that she was prepared to give evidence if required. Such an appearance would no doubt be more challenging than any episode of Suits, the TV legal drama series she was appearing in when she met Harry. Her five ‘close’ friends are also likely to be called as witnesses, and Thomas Markle wants to have his say.
So who is going to be paying the legal bills? Prince Charles funded the couple while they were working royals. He is still giving them money while they find their feet in the non-royal world. But will paying for this case be a demand too far? It will be a difficult decision as His Royal Highness won’t want his relationship with Harry to revert to the froideur that existed between son and father during and after his tumultuous marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales.
The costs could make a significant dent in the couple’s funds. It’s been claimed that Meghan and Harry could make £500million in ten years, but it hasn’t happened yet. Financially rewarding gigs have been put on one side because of the coronavirus. Their costly Sussex Royal website, blocked by the Queen to prevent them using their royal status for commercial gain, has been ditched and they are now paying to set up a new charitable organisation called the Archewell Foundation. They are also looking to buy a home in pricy Malibu.
In a few days Mr Justice Warby will determine the subject matter of the final hearing. If some issues are struck out Meghan might not agree and fight for all her accusations to stay in. She also has the option of pulling out altogether, but that is unlikely. Harry is reported as saying before the wedding ‘what Meghan wants, Meghan gets’. However if the case goes ahead there is the hugely embarrassing possibility of seeing Meghan and her father testify against one another, which surely can’t be what either of them want.