LONDON (Reuters) - Legal action by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, against a British tabloid for breaching her privacy had its first court hearing on Friday, with the newspaper’s lawyer attempting to have claims that it had acted dishonestly struck out.
Meghan, wife of Queen Elizabeth’s grandson Prince Harry, is suing Associated Newspapers over articles its Mail on Sunday newspaper printed in February last year which included parts of a letter she had sent to her father, Thomas Markle.
The case is the latest step in growing hostility between the media and the couple, now based in North America, who announced this week they would have “zero engagement” with four of Britain’s top tabloids.
Lawyers for the duchess say the letter’s publication was a misuse of private information and breached her copyright. They are seeking aggravated damages from the paper.
As part of the claim, the lawyers accuse the Mail and other tabloids of harassing, humiliating and manipulating Thomas Markle, and contributing towards a fallout between father and daughter.
They argue the Mail had deliberately omitted parts of the letter, which was never intended to be made public, to paint the royals in a poor light.
Antony White, the lawyer representing the Mail, sought at a pre-trial hearing on Friday to have allegations the paper had acted dishonestly and had stoked the rift removed from the case, along with references to other articles about the royal which she says were false.
He said it was “remarkable” the claim about the treatment of Markle had been made without the duchess having contacted her father to see if he agreed.
Given Britain’s coronavirus lockdown, Friday’s hearing - one of the first stages in the legal action - was held by video, with lawyers and journalists joining remotely.
Meghan and Harry, who are living in the Los Angeles area having stepped down from their royal roles at the end of last month, were also expected to listen in, a source said.
The case centres on articles published in February 2019 about the rift between Meghan and her father, who fell out after her pomp-laden wedding to Harry in May the year before.
Markle pulled out days before the wedding after undergoing heart surgery and following news he had staged photos with a paparazzi photographer. Speculation about his attendance dominated the build-up to the ceremony and he has not spoken to Meghan since.
The Mail says unnamed friends of Meghan had put her version of events in interviews with the U.S. magazine People and that Markle had the right to put his side. The paper’s lawyers also argue that given Meghan’s royal status, there was legitimate public interest in her personal and family relationships.
At the hearing, White rejected the allegation the tabloid had acted dishonestly or maliciously by publishing extracts of the letter she sent her father in August 2018 and said it should be dismissed as irrelevant.
In response, Meghan’s lawyer David Sherborne said the editing of the letter had been highly misleading.
“It was disclosed with the sole and entirely gratuitous purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the newspaper’s readership regarding the private life of the claimant, a curiosity deliberately generated by the defendant,” said Sherborne.
He argued the Mail had pursued an agenda of publishing offensive stories about Meghan.
“If the defence want to cross examine her ... they can do,” Sherborne said, indicating the duchess might appear in the dock at the future trial. The Mail has already suggested her father could be a witness.
The judge, Mark Warby, said he hoped to give his decision on Friday’s issues within a week. A date for a full trial has not yet been set.
Editing by Stephen Addison and Frances Kerry