LONDON — Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, had her first virtual day in court Friday in her lawsuit against a heavy-hitting British tabloid over the publication of a private letter from the American actress to her estranged father.
In the handwritten 2018 missive addressed to “daddy,” obtained by the Mail On Sunday last year, Meghan begged her father to stop talking to the media, saying, “your actions have broken my heart into a million pieces.”
Meghan’s father, Thomas Markle, 75, living in Mexico, has been a royal pain to the royal couple, complaining that the celebrity duo has treated him shabbily and abandoned him.
The elder Markle has acknowledged that he sold his story to paparazzi, the tabloids and TV documentary producers, to make money and to tell his version of his estrangement with his daughter and her new family.
Because of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed at least 20,000 in Britain, the court proceedings in London were conducted via video conference links. Aides to Prince Harry and his wife suggested that the couple would be listening in from their new home in Los Angeles.
Meghan is suing the Mail On Sunday and MailOnline over articles that reproduced parts of a handwritten letter she sent to her father in August 2018.
“The bombshell five-page letter … lays bare the true depths of the Duchess’s estrangement from her father,” the tabloid reported at the time. News media around the world, including The Washington Post, reported on the scoop.
Meghan is claiming invasion of privacy, breach of data protection and copyright infringement. The tabloid not only quoted portions of her letter, but printed images of her elaborate handwritten script.
In court documents, the duchess also claims that the tabloid selectively edited her letter “in a misleading and dishonest manner.”
Associated Newspapers, the owner of the tabloids, argued in its response that Meghan had no reasonable expectation of privacy as she is a public figure.
The tabloid’s lawyers also said Meghan probably anticipated — even intended — that the letter would be published.
Mark Stephens, a British media lawyer not associated with the case, said the case was expanding beyond copyright and privacy issues to one examining wider behaviors around image curation and the actions of newspapers.
Initially, Stephens said, it looked as though the case might just be about copyright and privacy, which “on the face of it, looked like a pretty strong case” for Meghan.
The law around copyright in letters is the same in the United States as it is in Britain, Stephens said. The recipient of a letter is gifted the envelope and paper it is written on, but the author of the letter retains the copyright and the right to reproduce or prevent its reproduction.
“Part of her claim is, ‘I wrote this letter, I own the copyright,’ Thomas Markle or Mail on Sunday had no right to reproduce it, and therefore it is an infringement of copyright … and in addition, it’s an intensely private letter, therefore, it’s a breach of my privacy to have published it or disclosed its contents,” Stephens said.
Associated Newspapers has defended the letter’s publication, saying that Thomas Markle had a “weighty right” to tell his version of events to set the record straight.
The tabloid’s defense suggests that Meghan had effectively breached her copyright by allowing five friends to brief People magazine for its cover story: “Meghan Markle’s Best Friends Break Their Silence: ‘We Want to Speak the Truth.’ ” One of them acknowledged the existence of the letter Meghan wrote to her dad.
In court documents made public Friday, and seen by The Washington Post, Meghan said she was unaware of the briefing to People magazine.
“The claimant did not know that this interview had taken place with People magazine, nor, critically, that reference had been made in the interview to the Letter.” Meghan’s lawyers said that had she known of the briefing, she would “never have consented to such a reference.”
Stephens said that the case was becoming one that was looking at the broader issues of news coverage and briefings to the media.
“It’s expanding beyond copyright and privacy issues to one examining the behavior of Associated Newspapers. Did they deceive Thomas Markle? Did they harass him? Did they encourage him?” he said.
He also said the briefing to People magazine will come under scrutiny.
“All of her five friends, there is going to be disclosure about the communications between them, the computers are going to be looked at, what were all five of them discussing, who gave authorization to disclose what, and that’s just one incident,” he said.