13:12, April 24 170 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-24 13:12:04
Mail publisher had agenda of 'offensive' stories about Meghan, court told

A newspaper was accused of “stirring up” issues between the Duchess of Sussex and her estranged father, Thomas Markle, then using it to justify publishing a “private and confidential” letter, a court heard.

Lawyers representing Meghan said she was distressed at the realisation that Associated Newspapers had an agenda of “intrusive and offensive” stories about her, a judge was told.

Meghan is suing publisher Associated Newspapers for misuse of private information, breach of data protection and copyright infringement after the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online, which it owns, published contents of the handwritten letter sent to 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 on Friday, she and Prince Harry were understood to be listening in from Los Angeles.

Meghan is suing over five articles – two in the Mail on Sunday, and three on Mail Online – reproducing 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’.”

The duchess has previously made clear that any damages over and above legal costs would be donated to an anti-bullying charity.

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

Antony White QC for Associated Newspapers said allegations of “dishonesty and malicious intent” were not relevant in a misuse of private information case. “They are not relevant, they are not properly pleaded and should be pruned from the claimant’s case.”

Claims by Meghan that the newspaper had “harassed, humiliated, manipulated and exploited” her were “remarkable” given that she had not contacted her father to ask if he agreed, he added.

David Sherborne, QC for the duchess, said: “It is the defendant’s actions in stirring up, creating this dispute that they use as justification for publishing the contents of the letter.”

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 other articles were not sued on, and not written by the same journalist as the article sued on.

David Sherborne, for the duchess, said it was a “complete fallacy” to dismiss claims that the newspaper had harassed and manipulated her father because she had not been in contact with him. Markle had “made it plain” to his daughter in a letter complaining about his treatment by a journalist. It was also evident in highly damaging and distressing stories the publisher had run about Markle, including exposing him as a “royal wedding scammer” for having agreed to pose for fake photographs of his wedding preparations, the judge heard.

The Mail on Sunday was dishonest because while cherry-picking extracts to suit its negative narrative of the duchess, “they knew perfectly well it was not the whole letter yet they suggested it was the whole letter”, the court heard.

On the other nine articles, on which she is claiming aggravated damages, Sherborne said it was all about the distress she felt at the realisation the defendant had an agenda of “intrusive and offensive” stories about her. The articles included: “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: gang-scarred home of her mother revealed”; “Kitchen supported by Meghan’s cookbook is housed inside mosque ‘which has links to 19 terror suspects including Jihadi John’”; and “How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack – beloved of all millennials – is fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder.”

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 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.

White told the judge that the Mail on Sunday said it was publishing extracts, not the full letter.

The judge has reserved judgment in the case.

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