Judge hands Meghan a big blow
It has been a stressful, angst-filled year made worse by the fact the COVID pandemic has denied the world one simple but powerful balm: Regular, delicious sightings of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
But now we have a firm date when not only will we spy the couple but it is likely they will be back in the UK, nearly a year to the day they sensationally quit.
Overnight a London court set down January 11, 2021 for Meghan's lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday's parent company to be finally heard in a London court. (She is alleging the Mail breached her privacy after publishing portions of a letter she had sent her estranged father Thomas Markle.)
Just imagine the melee outside the Old Bailey when they step out of their car: The Duchess, polished, wearing some sort of heavenly, immediately iconic designer getup (over the weekend former Prada PR manager Maria Means Cote was outed as her stylist) striding elegantly into the Old Bailey.
By her side, most likely, Harry, his now trademark grimace in place, wearing his ubiquitous blue suit, his barely-contained roiling anger and resentment towards the media all too evident.
And all of that's before even the opening statements.
(The dramahhhh is such you have to wonder if The Crown's showrunners are regretting their decision to stop after season five.)
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With the Times reporting that Meghan is "expected to give evidence in person, rather than via video link" it is hard not to let one's mind wander and to imagine the moment when Harry and Meghan dramatically step back into the spotlight in Britain.
Since the first preliminary hearing in May, it has been a tumultuous ride and overnight Meghan faced something of a blow after a judge ruled the royal had to hand over six months worth of private messages.
In addition, the Mail is also now seeking to amend their defence in the wake of the publication of Finding Freedom, the overtly pro-Sussex biography of the couple, that was released last month.
Even before yesterday's hearing, it had been a tumultuous week for Meghan. It's been revealed she sacked her high profile barrister David Sherborne. (His previous clients have included Diana, Princess of Wales and Johnny Depp in his recent high profile defamation case against The Sun.)
While no official reason has been given, the Times has reported that there is "speculation in media law circles that the Duchess, 39, had ditched Mr Sherborne in solidarity with Amber Heard, Mr Depp's former wife, who has accused the actor of domestic violence." Depp denies the allegations.
In May, Mr Sherborne appeared in the first pre-trial argument in which the court ruled against Meghan and ordered her to pay $120,000 in legal costs to the Mail.
A quick recap on Meghan's case: On February 6 last year, People magazine published a story with the heading "Meghan Markle's Best Friends Break Their Silence: 'We Want to Speak the Truth.'" In the piece, five of her friends anonymously and vigorously defended the embattled royal who at the time was facing a wave of negative press.
In that story, a friend first revealed the existence of a letter that she had written her father after her May 2018 wedding. (We may never know who the women in question are. In August, Meghan's legal team won in their bid to, temporarily at least, keep their identities a secret in order to protect their privacy.)
Three days later on February 9, the Mail on Sunday published an interview with Thomas Markle, including portions of the letter. The Duchess is suing the Mail's publisher ANL for alleged copyright infringement and invasion of privacy.
In October last year, it was revealed that Meghan was suing the Mail over the letter, with Harry penning a statement excoriating the tabloid media saying he could no longer be a "silent witness to (his wife's) private suffering" and accusing sections of the media of "waging campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences".
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The case has been slowly making its way through the British legal system since then and overnight in London during the latest in a long list of preliminary hearings, the situation got a whole lot messier.
To start with, while the arrival of Finding Freedom on shelves in August gave the Sussexes a massive injection of positive publicity, painting them largely as victims of palace protocol, the title could now play a significant part in the Mail's defence.
During the Monday hearing, lawyers for the Mail alleged the Duchess "breached her own privacy because she "permitted" details about her life to be provided to the authors, including "information about the letter".
In a document presented to the court, that "'If C (meaning Claimant i.e. Meghan) provided extensive co-operation to the authors and permitted a detailed account of her private life, relationships, thoughts and feelings to be published, including references to her relationship and communications with her father, it is difficult to see how she can complain that the Letter should not have been published because 'it contained the Claimant's deepest and most private thoughts and feelings'."
Lawyers argued that Harry and Meghan "co-operated with the authors of the recently published book Finding Freedom to put out their version of certain events".
Antony White, QC, who is representing the Mail, said in a submission that the biography gave "every appearance of having been written with their (Meghan and Harry's) extensive co-operation".
However, Justin Rushbrooke QC, acting for Meghan, denied the claims and said the assertion was "fantastical" and "a conspiracy theory".
"The claimant and her husband did not collaborate with the authors on the book, nor were they interviewed for it, nor did they provide photographs to the authors for the book," Mr Rushbrooke has in a written submission.
Omid Scobie, one of the authors of Freedom, also provided a witness statement, stating that the royal duo "did not authorise the book and have never been interviewed for it".
In making the case for the modified defence, the Mail's lawyers claimed that the former actress had written the letter to her father "as part of a media strategy" and in legal documents argued that "(Meghan) has allowed information about her private and family life, including her relationship and communications with her father and the letter, to enter the public domain by means of the book".
It remains to be seen whether the Mail's revised legal tack will work, with the presiding judge Master Francesca Kaye reserving her judgment on the paper's application.
However, in a blow for Meghan, Master Kaye ruled the Duchess must submit "photos, FaceTime logs and WhatsApp messages" from a six-month period dating from February 10, 2019.
Lawyers for the Mail also alleged Meghan had used her friends "as de facto PR agents" in order "to influence the media in a positive way". They argued that she decided to "bypass" the palace press office in 2018 and she was "frustrated" with the royal family's approach to handling the media.
The paper's legal team "cited a moment in April 2018 when the Duchess asked her good friend Jessica Mulroney to intervene in an interview the Mail on Sunday was doing with the publicist Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne," ITV's royal editor Chris Ship has reported. "Meghan's involvement has not been denied by her legal team."
While we are still four months away from the case actually starting, the stakes are just getting higher.
Should Meghan win, she will be very publicly vindicated after years of having her life raked over by Fleet Street and will have triumphed in her ongoing battle to protect her privacy. However, should she lose, it would be a serious PR blow for the Duchess and would give significant credence to critics who claim she and Harry are simply unable to cope with any negative press.
And, all of this is before we have even gotten to the huge cash question.
The court in London heard overnight that the total legal costs for both sides have been estimated to be around $5.3 million ($3.1 for Megan and $2.1 for the Mail's parent company). Master Kaye criticised the costs on both sides, labelling them "excessive" and "disproportionate".
With Meghan already having to reach into her own pocket to pay the Mail'scosts once, the potential financial toll of this legal stoush is not inconsequential.
Given the case is set down for ten days, that means only one thing: Ten glorious days of killer Meghan outfits to look forward to. For this and 1001 other reasons, bring on 2021!
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.
Originally published as Judge hands Meghan a big blow