10:02, April 24 205 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-24 10:02:05
Mail publisher asks court to strike out Meghan's 'dishonesty' claims

Claims by the Duchess of Sussex that a newspaper had “harassed, humiliated, manipulated and exploited” her estranged father to “dig or stir up” a dispute between the pair were “remarkable”, given that she had not contacted him to ask if he agreed, the high court has heard.

Meghan is suing Associated Newspapers for misuse of private information, breach of data protection, and copyright infringement after the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online published the contents of a handwritten “private and confidential” letter sent to Thomas Markle, 75, in August 2018.

Associated Newspapers denies the claims.

As the first round in her privacy claim was heard remotely before a virtual court hearing in London, she and Prince Harry were expected to be listening in from Los Angeles.

Meghan is suing over five articles – two in the Mail on Sunday, and three on Mail Online – which reproduced parts of the letters, with the headline on one reading: “Revealed: The letter showing the true tragedy of Meghan’s rift with a father she says has ‘broken her heart into a million pieces’.”

At a preliminary hearing before Mr Justice Warby, lawyers for Associated Newspapers argued that parts of the duchess’s claim should be struck out, including that it had “acted dishonestly ” in cutting out words and sentences from the letter in order to paint a misleading picture of the relationship between father and daughter.

Allegations of “dishonesty and malicious intent” were not relevant in a misuse of private information case, Antony White QC said. “They are not relevant, they are not properly pleaded and should be pruned from the claimant’s case.” It was just “bald assertion” that would require a “complex test of the state of mind of the publisher”, which was neither proportionate or appropriate, he said.

Claims the newspaper had “harassed, humiliated, manipulated and exploited” her father was a “remarkable position”, White added. “In this context it appears that the claimant 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,” he said. As she had said that she has had no contact with him since the wedding, it was “highly unlikely” she had any credible basis for the claim, he said.

Associated Newspapers is also seeking to strike out references to nine other articles, alleged by the duchess to demonstrate an agenda against her and part of her plea for aggravated damages. White said they were written by 14 different journalists, and were all said by Meghan “to be false”. He added these others articles were not sued on, and not written by the same journalist as the article sued on.

David Sherborne QC, for the duchess, said the Mail on Sunday had “cherry-picked” bits from the letter, sometimes omitting words and sentences from paragraphs. Around half the letter had been omitted because “it didn’t fit the narrative”, he said. The legal argument for striking out claims of dishonesty was “an artificial exercise”, he said. The newspaper was not trying to strike out claims that it had been “misleading”, he added.

The letter, was “obviously private correspondence”, and contained Meghan’s “deepest and most private thoughts” about her relationship with her father at a time of great personal anguish and distress after he was unable to walk her down the aisle at her May 2018 wedding, the judge heard.

Court documents showed that Associated Newspapers wrote to Meghan’s lawyers on 6 April, stating that Friday’s hearing should be avoided if possible because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and offering not to seek costs if the disputed parts of her claim were withdrawn. However, it is claimed, her legal team replied saying she “considered it was unreasonable to accept the offer”.

No date has yet been set for the main trial. Her lawyers will argue that, contrary to the impression given in a series of articles, Meghan and Harry had repeatedly telephoned and messaged her father in the lead up to to the wedding, but he had refused to answer their calls.

Associated Newspapers will argue that the duchess had an expectation that the letter might be put in the public domain. An article in People Magazine had quoted one of her friends making reference to it, it will argue. The duchess has denied she knew her friend would speak about it, or that she had sanctioned any such interview for the magazine.

The case continues.