The royals claim the paper committed a misuse of private information, infringement of copyright and breach of the Data Protection Act 2018 when it printed a private letter reportedly written by Meghan to her estranged father, Thomas Markle.
Shortly after, Prince Harry launched another formal legal claim against two other U.K. tabloids over alleged phone hacking.
“Unfortunately, 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,” Prince Harry said in an official statement published to the Sussexes’ website in 2019.
It continues: “There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behaviour, because it destroys people and destroys lives. Put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people. We all know this isn’t acceptable, at any level. We won’t and can’t believe in a world where there is no accountability for this.”
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The question in these lawsuits, said Vancouver lawyer Rose Keith, is whether Meghan Markle had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when she wrote that letter to her father.
“Our understanding of privacy and our experience of privacy has changed from 20 years ago, [because of platfirns like] social media,” said Keith.
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Keith admits the U.K. processes are different than those in Canada, but she predicts a number of factors would affect the outcome of the suit, regardless of location.
“One of them is whether the person [Meghan was communicating with] is in a position of trust,” she said. “If I were communicating with my parents, I would have an expectation of privacy in that situation.”
Were this the argument made by Harry and Meghan’s legal counsel, the defense may argue that “[Meghan] would have no expectation of privacy in those circumstances because she’s estranged from her father,” said Keith.
Meghan Markle’s status as a public figure of interest could also come into play.
In law, there are two different standards: an objective standard and a subjective standard. The former is the reasonable person in that person’s circumstances, and the latter is the person’s personal feelings on things.
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“If you’re a public figure, what objectively do you think a reasonable person would expect in terms of privacy?” said Keith. “I still think that Meghan, in writing to her father, would have an expectation of privacy, but I don’t know all the factors.”
Although the subject matter of these lawsuits is certainly unique, this isn’t the first time members of the royal family have made legal claims against media and other corporations.
“There is a history of members of royal families around the world being involved in court actions against certain parts of the media, said Edward J.T. Wang, a Vancouver-based lawyer and royal commentator.
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In 1993, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror published photographs of the late Princess Diana exercising at a gym, taken on a hidden camera.
“The Daily Mirror apologized, paid £200,000 to charity and £1,000,000 towards the Princess’s legal fees,” said Wang. “The gym owner refused to settle but finally did a week before the trial was going to begin [in 1995].”
In 2004, Her Royal Highness the Princess of Hanover (born Her Serene Highness Princess Caroline of Monaco) obtained a judgement from the European Court of Human Rights condemning the German Constitutional Court for allowing publication of certain pictures.
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“The European Court said there had been no ‘legitimate interest’ in the princess’s private life and that there was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights,” said Wang.
In 2012, the French magazine Closer and the Italian magazine Chi published photographs of Kate Middleton sun-bathing topless while on vacation in France at a chateau privately owned by then-Viscount Linley (now the Earl of Snowdon).
“In September [of the same year], the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge filed criminal complaints in France for invasion of privacy,” Wang said. “This led to a trial and the conviction of six people related to the magazines, as well as fines of €100,000 against the magazine Closer, and €45,000 each against the owner of the magazine and the editor.”
The royal family’s evolving relationship with the media
For a long time, before the advent of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, the royal family was able to make “quiet arrangements” with the press, said royal historian Carolyn Harris.
The U.K. media would be willing to avoid certain topics in exchange for privileged access to royal events.
One example is the abdication crisis of 1936, when the British press kept quiet about King Edward VIII’s relationship with American socialite Wallis Simpson.
“That is, until it became a constitutional crisis with the abdication,” said Harris. “In contrast, the American press was much more willing to cover the story of this growing relationship. In some ways, Canadians knew about this before the British did.”
Now, news spreads to all corners of the globe so quickly that the royal family lacks leverage, making it more difficult to keep private matters out of the hands of the media.
“Some previous means which the royal family used to manage the press simply do not work in the modern day, as was possible in the past,” Harris said.
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Harris wonders if it was the first ever royal family documentary — initiated by Prince Philip and filmed in 1969 — that was a turning point for the monarchy.
“The question now is whether the 1969 royal family documentary was simply in keeping with the times, making the royal family more relevant, or whether they opened the door to further invasive press coverage in the future,” she said.
“The documentary is now seen as rather embarrassing; it’s not shown in public.”
Now, Harris thinks it will be very difficult for members of the royal family to maintain their privacy, “simply by how quickly news stories and photographs travel once they appear on the internet,” she said.
“It can be very difficult to ensure that they could get photos to disappear [once they’re on the internet], a challenge that William and Catherine faced in their lawsuit relating to events in the south of France early in their marriage.”
It will be much more difficult for new generations of the royal family to control what’s printed about them, said Harris — something Harry and Meghan know all too well.
— With files from Global News’ Meaghan Wray
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