Meghan Markle’s legal battle with the British press suffered a body blow today after large parts of her case against the Mail on Sunday were dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ by a High Court judge including her claims of a malicious media ‘agenda’ against her.
Mr Justice Warby has also ‘struck out’ her allegations that journalists had acted dishonestly and had caused the rift between her and her estranged father Thomas by ‘digging up dirt’ to portray Meghan in a ‘negative light’.
The Duchess of Sussex, 38, is suing Associated Newspapers over an article which reproduced parts of a handwritten note she sent to Mr Markle, 75, in August 2018, three months after he was unable to walk her down the aisle following a heart attack.
The former Suits actress claims her father’s decision to make the letter public in February 2019 – days after he was ‘vilified’ by five of her closest friends in a US magazine – had breached her privacy, copyright and data protection rights in a case now dubbed ‘Markle vs Markle’.
Her London legal team, led by celebrity barrister David Sherborne, also accused journalists of ‘dishonesty’, stirring up conflict between Meghan and her father, and maliciously pursuing an agenda to portray her in a false and damaging light.
Associated Newspapers [AN], publisher of the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, made an application to have these three parts of her claim thrown out in an online hearing watched by the Sussexes from Los Angeles last Friday.
Today Mr Justice Warby ruled entirely in the publisher’s favour and threw out the claims as ‘irrelevant’ saying: ‘I do not consider the allegations in question go to the heart of the case’.
He said in his judgment, published at Midday: ‘I have struck out all the passages attacked in the application notice. Some of the allegations are struck out as irrelevant to the purpose for which they are pleaded. Some are struck out on the further or alternative ground that they are inadequately detailed. I have also acted so as to confine the case to what is reasonably necessary and proportionate for the purpose of doing justice between these parties’.
Associated Newspapers will also ask the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to pay their costs of in excess of £50,000 after the couple refused their offer to deal with the issue out of court to save the High Court having to set up an online hearing during the coronavirus crisis. Meghan’s costs are said to have been £60,000-plus.
Some of Britain’s top media lawyers had warned before last week’s hearing that Meghan’s case had been ‘overblown’ and would be cut back.
Today’s ruling is a stepping stone to a full trial in late 2020 or early 2021 where Meghan Markle and Thomas Markle would come face-to-face for the first time in more than two years – with father and daughter giving evidence against each other.
Five of Meghan Markle’s best friends could be called to give evidence in court and asked if they colluded with the Duchess to reveal that she had sent a letter to her father
Five of Meghan’s best friends could be called to give evidence in court. The ‘inner circle’ could be asked on oath if they colluded with the Duchess of Sussex to reveal that she had sent a letter to her father, Thomas.
Mr Markle says he shared the letter with The Mail on Sunday only after Meghan’s friends gave an interview about it to the US magazine People, and did so to show the world it was not the tender message her friends had suggested, the newspaper has said in its defence.
In the bombshell February 2019 interview with the anonymous five women, one of them disclosed the existence of the letter but the duchess claims she was ‘distressed’ about this when she found out, according to a legal statement of her case lodged by her lawyers.
Meghan initially declined to comment on the newspaper’s claim that she had ‘knowingly’ allowed her friends to leak details of the letter, effectively breaching her own privacy.
But last week she raised the stakes with an emphatic denial. Her lawyer David Sherborne wrote in the document filed to the court: ‘[She] did not know that her friends were giving an interview to People magazine, let alone that one of them would refer to the letter.’
If the case proceeds to trial, it is possible the five friends could be asked to testify on oath about Meghan’s claims. They have never been named, with People magazine referring to them as ‘Meghan’s inner circle – a longtime friend, a former co-star, a friend from LA, a onetime colleague and a close confidante’.
Mr Justice Warby’s judgment means any trial will now focus on whether Meghan had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the letter to her father, in view of her friends already briefing People magazine about its contents. And whether publishing parts of the letter was in the public interest and allowed under freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Meghan’s barrister David Sherborne told last Friday’s hearing Meghan would give evidence during any future trial about her claims of poor treatment by the British press. He said: ‘The defendant [Associated Newspapers] wants to cross-examine her [Meghan] as to whether that belief is reasonable or not – and they can do that’. These claims will now not be heard in any future trial.
The High Court case has been dubbed ‘Markle vs Markle’ in which the duchess’s estranged father Thomas, 75, is prepared to give evidence against his own daughter in a box office trial where a judge would decide who is telling the truth about their rift and the letter Meghan sent to him in August 2018.
Last week court papers lodged by Meghan’s lawyers branded her father a liar and denied she knew her influential friends planned to reveal details of her deteriorating relationship with him – and her handwritten letter to him – with People magazine in America.
Thomas Markle has said he instead wanted to share the letter with the press after its contents were misrepresented and he was ‘vilified’ in the People article, telling the Mail on Sunday: ‘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.’
Meghan would also be asked under oath whether she knowingly’ allowed her friends to leak details of the letter to People magazine to attack her father. These five unnamed best friends could also be forced to testify at the High Court in London.
She also alleged her estranged father Thomas was ‘harassed and exploited’ by the press despite not speaking to him for two years or asking if he agrees with her claims. This has also been struck out by Judge Warby.
Antony White QC, for Associated Newspapers, told judge Mr Justice Warby in last Friday’s hearing it was ‘curious’ that the Mail on Sunday is accused of manipulating Mr Markle when his daughter hasn’t spoken to him since she married Prince Harry.
He said: ‘The claimant [Meghan] has seen fit to put these allegations on the record without having spoken to Mr Markle, verifying these allegations with him or obtaining his consent’, adding Ms Markle admits that she has had no contact with him since the wedding.
He added: ‘It is therefore highly unlikely that she has any credible basis for these allegations of impropriety towards him’.