By ZOE MAGEE, ABC News
(LONDON) — Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, scored an at least temporary victory Wednesday in her lawsuit against a U.K.-based tabloid.
A British judge ruled that Meghan can, for now, keep the names of five friends secret while she brings a copyright infringement lawsuit against Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday edition of the Daily Mail.
“The Duchess felt it was necessary to take this step to try and protect her friends — as any of us would — and we’re glad this was clear,” a spokesperson for Meghan and her husband Prince Harry told ABC News in reaction to the judge’s ruling. “We are happy that the Judge has agreed to protect these five individuals.”
Meghan and Harry publicly announced the lawsuit against Associated Newspapers last October.
While no trial date has been set, there have been two preliminary hearings in the lawsuit so far.
Here is what to know about the lawsuit, and what is expected to happen next:
Why is the Duchess of Sussex suing Associated Newspapers?
Meghan is suing Associated Newspapers, the parent company of The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, over five articles published in February 2019 that included excerpts from a private letter she sent to her now estranged father, Thomas Markle. The duchess is seeking damages from the newspaper for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.
The letter, which is the focal point of the court case, describes the break down in relations between father and daughter.
In the run up to the 2018 royal wedding, Thomas Markle had been the subject of immense tabloid interest, which reached a pinnacle when the Daily Mail revealed just days before the wedding that, in an attempt to revamp his image, Thomas Markle had staged paparazzi photos of himself preparing for his daughter’s big day.
Markle was then hospitalized and had to undergo surgery, which prevented him from traveling to his daughter’s wedding.
Relations between the two became strained and Thomas Markle gave several interviews to the media which we now know greatly upset his daughter. The letter lays out Meghan’s take on these events.
According to the duchess’ legal team, the Mail on Sunday breached copyright by publishing the private letter as it legally belongs to the duchess, the author of the letter.
Her lawyers also argue that the Mail on Sunday breached privacy and data protection laws and that they cherry-picked portions of the letter to manipulate readers.
The letter was published by the Mail on Sunday in February 2019. In it, the duchess describes her sadness at the deterioration of her relationship with her father, asks why he spoke to the media and says he has broken her heart “into a million pieces.”
Thomas Markle claims he agreed to the letter being published to set the record straight after a friend of the duchess mentioned the letter in an interview with People magazine.
Five friends, described as “an essential part of Meghan’s inner circle,” spoke anonymously to People, according to the magazine, saying they wanted to “stand up against the global bullying we are seeing and speak the truth about our friend.”
They added, “Meg has silently sat back and endured the lies and untruths … It’s wrong to put anyone under this level of emotional trauma, let alone when they’re pregnant.”
One of these five friends referenced the letter Meghan had written to her father, saying, “After the wedding she wrote him a letter. She’s like, ‘Dad, I’m so heartbroken. I love you. I have one father. Please stop victimizing me through the media so we can repair our relationship."”
Thomas Markle in turn said he felt compelled to publish the letter to defend his reputation — asserting it was not the conciliatory missive described by this friend in People.
The lawsuit must determine whether the Mail on Sunday infringed Duchess Meghan’s rights when it published the letter.
Prince Harry announces lawsuit blasting ‘disturbing pattern’ by British tabloid media
Prince Harry announced the lawsuit in a statement criticizing the media during his tour of southern Africa in October 2019.
He wrote, “My wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences — a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son.”
“This particular legal action hinges on one incident in a long and disturbing pattern of behavior by British tabloid media,” he added. “The contents of a private letter were published unlawfully in an intentionally destructive manner to manipulate you, the reader, and further the divisive agenda of the media group in question. In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year.”
“My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person,” wrote Harry, whose mother, Princess Diana, died in a paparazzi-involved car crash in 1997. “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
After the statement was released to the public, his law firm, Schillings, laid out their case.
“We have initiated legal proceedings against the Mail on Sunday, and its parent company Associated Newspapers, over the intrusive and unlawful publication of a private letter written by the Duchess of Sussex, which is part of a campaign by this media group to publish false and deliberately derogatory stories about her, as well as her husband,” the law firm wrote. “Given the refusal of Associated Newspapers to resolve this issue satisfactorily, we have issued proceedings to redress this breach of privacy, infringement of copyright and the aforementioned media agenda.”
What has happened so far?
While the trial date has not yet been set there have been two pretrial hearings.
The first hearing, known as a strike-out hearing, was on April 23 and was held to determine which of the duchess’ claims could proceed to a trial against Associated Newspapers. In this hearing, lawyers for the Mail on Sunday successfully argued that certain parts of the duchess’ claims should be removed.
Justice Mark Warby — the judge who is presiding over the case — agreed to take out complaints that the paper acted dishonestly, deliberately stirred up conflict between the duchess and her father, and pursued an agenda of publishing offensive or intrusive articles about the duchess.
“I do not consider the allegations in question go to the ‘heart’ of the case, which at its core concerns the publication of five articles disclosing the words of, and information drawn from, the letter written by the claimant to her father in August in 2018,” he said.
These five articles were published in the Mail on Sunday in February 2019 and reproduced parts of her handwritten letter she sent to her father.
Having lost on those claims, the duchess agreed to pay Associated Newspapers’ legal fees of approximately $87,000.
Meghan wins right to protect identity of her friends
The second hearing was on July 29 and in it the Duchess’ legal team called for Warby to legally block Associated Newspapers from publishing the identity of the five friends who gave interviews to People magazine. Their names were revealed to the newspaper in a confidential court document attached to the first hearing and Meghan was worried the identity of her friends would be made public.
In a witness statement sent to the court before the hearing, the duchess argued, “Associated Newspapers, the owner of The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, is threatening to publish the names of five women — five private citizens — who made a choice on their own to speak anonymously with a U.S. media outlet more than a year ago, to defend me from the bullying behavior of Britain’s tabloid media.”
“These five women are not on trial, and nor am I. The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case –that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter,” she said.
Her lawyers argued that the friends have a double right to anonymity, firstly as confidential journalistic sources and secondly under their own privacy rights.
Lawyers for Associated Newspapers argued that the identities should be made public, calling them “important potential witnesses on a key issue.”
“Reporting these matters without referring to names would be a heavy curtailment of the media’s and the defendant’s entitlement to report this case and the public’s right to know about it,” said Antony White, the lawyer representing the paper. “No friend’s oral evidence could be fully and properly reported because full reporting might identify her, especially as there has already been media speculation as to their identities.”
High Court Judge Mark Warby said Wednesday, “I have concluded that, for the time being at least, the court should grant the claimant the order that she seeks, protecting the anonymity of friends who defended Meghan in the pages of a U.S. magazine.”
Judge Warby also added though that concerns about confidentiality “may fade or even evaporate if and when there is a trial at which one or more of the sources gives evidence.”
Meghan’s legal team is treating the five women as potential witnesses, so they may be named at trial.
Associated Newspapers declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
A trial date has yet to be set, and according to a source close to the duchess, there are several procedural steps that have to be fulfilled first, including a Case Management Conference, the disclosure of documents and the exchange of witness statements.
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