The Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle) denies putting a yoga studio in Frogmore Cottage, where she and Prince Harry lived full-time from April 2019 to this January. Or a tennis court, or an orangery, or a guest wing, or even a copper tub.
These denials did not come in a statement issued by Buckingham Palace, or from a press representative from the royal couple, or from a Notes app screenshot posted to Instagram or Twitter, the current celebrity method du jour to address what they believe to be perceived wrongs. Instead, they came in a legal filing from a lawsuit filed against Associated Newspapers, the publisher of The Mail on Sunday and The Daily Mail, released months after the paper published these allegations in a series of articles about Meghan and Harry in the spring of 2019.
Fascinating in their own right, that filing, parts of which have only just been made public, offer the first and practically unprecedented glimpse into how the duke and duchess say they’ve struggled to maintain control over their public image, and the obstacles they’ve faced.
The Sussex’s lawsuit against the British tabloid is, at its core, over a letter. One that the Duchess of Sussex wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, after a series of high-profile dramas: first, his decision not to attend his daughter’s May 2018 wedding after it emerged he staged paparazzi photos—which he announced via TMZ. Then, a series of subsequent media interviews where he was critical of his daughter and her husband. That, in turn, caused a media storm that led to his decision not to attend his daughter’s May 2018 wedding—which, adding fuel to the gossip fire, he announced through TMZ.
That letter got its first mention in People, where an anonymous friend quoted it in a cover story about Meghan. This is how the friend described its contents: “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.’ ”
Then, The Mail on Sunday got hold of the letter and published its contents. (I’d quote it here, but that’s the crux of the issue: The couple says that its choice to run it was an invasion of privacy, and that the paper unfairly altered its content.) Wrote Prince Harry in a scathing public statement: “In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you [the reader] by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year.” The Mail on Sunday, meanwhile, has said it stands by its story and will defend it “vigorously.”
Now, High Court proceedings in London have started for the lawsuit, which was filed in October 2019. The British court system will decide if, in fact, the Sussex’s allegations are valid.
Yet as arguments are heard, considered, and in one instance already, dismissed, something curious is happening: After months and months of, as Prince Harry put it, being “unable to correct the continual misrepresentations,” the Sussex’s version of their story is coming out. Yes, told through dense, not-easily digestible legal documents, but told nonetheless.
It’s a story they’ve stayed largely mum on until now. Why? It’s just the way the royal family does things: Buckingham Palace doesn’t usually comment on a majority of matters. Instead, they only tend to issue denials for the most egregious: For example, allegations concerning Prince Andrew’s possible involvement with Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex trafficking ring. (“Any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue,” they told NBC News. This inability to correct what they see as incorrect accounts in the U.K. tabloids apparently frustrated Harry and Meghan, the latter perhaps even more so—after all, before all of this she was an free-speaking actor and activist with her own social media account, blog, and press-savvy representative. “They live their lives seeing falsehood after falsehood. Fabrication after fabrication. Mistruth and distortion come out from everywhere. And they’ve seen it constantly and consistently,” a source familiar with the case says.
Take, for example, the unflattering rumor that Meghan knew about the decision by several of her friends to be interviewed for that aforementioned People story. In a witness statement reviewed by Vogue, the duchess alleges they “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.” Or the reports that Meghan didn’t invite her own mother to her baby shower. “The claimant’s mother was of course invited, and the claimant also offered to buy her airline tickets. However, her mother was unable to attend due to work commitments.” And speaking of that baby shower, coverage of which rip-roared through the American and U.K. press due to its supposed lavishness: It “actually cost a tiny fraction of the $300k falsely stated.”
It would be misleading to say everything submitted on their behalf is something they’d want publicly aired. That no, she says their home renovation didn’t include a tennis court, that no, she says her baby shower wasn’t as over-the-top as you thought, that no, she says she did not have any knowledge of that People magazine story until after it was published. That this whole thing is a redemption tour, after a long period spent in a negative spotlight. One where she was dubbed “Duchess Difficult” and everything, from the way she held her burgeoning baby bump, was criticized. Where comments on Kensington Palace’s Instagram were vamped up with such vitriol—toward both the duchesses—that the palace announced that they had to start deleting some. Because while the truth can set you free, it can also be quite ugly.
In a preliminary hearing in May, a High Court judge reviewed the Sussex’s claims that the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline “acted dishonestly,” “pursued an agenda of publishing intrusive or offensive stories about [the duchess],” and were “deliberately seeking to dig or stir up issues between her and her father.” He ended up dismissing them and streamlined the case into one focusing on privacy rights and data protection. (“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 wrote of his decision.)
However, as evidence for those claims, the duchess submitted a document that contained something deeply personal: text messages between her, and her father, that occurred days before he publicly—and no doubt painfully—withdrew from her wedding. As reported in the media: “I’ve called and texted but haven’t heard back from you so hoping you’re okay,” the document says she texted him on May 5, 2018. Then, on May 14, he texted her an apology and that he wouldn’t be attending her wedding—reportedly after the duchess discovered his decision on TMZ. She says she called him several times. He didn’t pick up. So, according to court documents, Harry texted him from her phone. His tone, frantically unpunctuated, reads as desperate:
“Tom, Harry again! Really need to speak to u. U do not need to apologize, we understand the circumstances but ‘going public’ will only make the situation worse. If u love Meg and want to make it right please call me as there are two other options which don’t involve u having to speak to the media, who incidentally created this whole situation. So please call me so I can explain. Meg and I are not angry, we just need to speak to u. Thanks”
The outreach apparently didn’t work. On May 19, the soon-to-be Duchess of Sussex walked down the first half of the aisle all alone. Eventually, she was joined by her father-in-law, Prince Charles.
How must the Sussexes have felt, revealing that raw, agonizing correspondence to the world, to watch it be picked up by outlet after outlet, to be tweeted and retweeted and commented on, only for a judge to dismiss the very claim they hoped it proved? “We are surprised to see that his ruling suggests that dishonest behavior is not relevant,” a spokesperson from Schillings, the law firm representing the duchess, said.
The duchess claims that the The Mail on Sunday and The Daily Mail wanted to publish the identity of her friends who served as anonymous sources—and therefore catapulting them into the media spotlight. The duchess filed another application in attempts to protect them: “These five women are not on trial, and nor am I,” she wrote in a witness statement. “Each of these women is a private citizen, young mother, and each has a basic right to privacy.”
Replied a Mail on Sunday spokesperson: “To set the record straight, The Mail on Sunday had absolutely no intention of publishing the identities of the five friends this weekend. But their evidence is at the heart of the case and we see no reason why their identities should be kept secret.”
In fact, on July 1, Mail Online ran a story on the very matter: “Meghan Markle names in court papers the five friends behind that People article about her father but denies she authorized them to do it.”
A source familiar with this case acknowledges this irony: That, in a case brought to highlight the U.K. tabloids’ own wrongdoings, they, in turn, are taking its contents and repurposing them to attract eyeballs and clicks. “Once these stories are out there, they overshadow the actual wrongdoing,” the source says. “It’s as clear as day when you take a moment to look behind the curtain.”
Associated Newspapers isn’t the only subject of an ongoing Sussex lawsuit. Prince Harry is suing the owners of The Sun, The Daily Mirror and the defunct News of the World for alleged phone hacking. On July 23, they filed an additional complaint in their new hometown of Los Angeles, against a paparazzo who allegedly took drone photos of their 14-month son, Archie. (“Every individual and family member in California is guaranteed by law the right to privacy in their home. No drones, helicopters or telephoto lenses can take away that right,” the couple’s lawyer, Michael Kump, said.)
While others royals have engaged in press-related lawsuits—the Queen has sued The Sun twice for breach of copyright and Princess Diana started legal action against The Daily Mirror in 1993 for publishing photos of her at the gym—no royal has gone on the same simultaneous lawsuit offensive like the Sussexes. Nor have they let most them go to trial. (A notable exception? The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s successful case against the French magazine, Closer, who published topless photos of the duchess sunbathing in 2012.)
During her October 2019 tour of South Africa, ITV journalist Tom Bradby asked the Duchess of Sussex how she was handling the media spotlight. “Thank you for asking,” she replied, her tone tinged with sadness. “Not many people have asked if I’m ok.” It was, she admitted, a struggle.
The duchess then told a tale of a somber warning. In 2016, she confided in a friend that she was dating Prince Harry. “I’m sure he’s great,” she recalls they said. “But you shouldn’t do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life.”
The court case between the Duchess of Sussex and Associated Newspapers is still ongoing. The courts, in all cases, will decide who is the victor. But, perhaps there’s another, less-official victory to be had, one whose outcome doesn’t depend on the formal legal system. That of a new narrative that challenges the one that previously played out in the press or crafted in the comments by social media trolls. That of a privacy sand-in-the-line that, if crossed, leads to a drawn-out, painful litigious process. And, for the Sussexes, that might arguably be more important.
Originally published on Vogue.com