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Meghan Markle says father 'exploited' by press as privacy lawsuit gets underway

The Duchess of Sussex is suing over private letters to her father, published by the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday.
A stack of Evening Standard newspapers in London features the eyes of Meghan Markle.
A stack of Evening Standard newspapers in London features the eyes of Meghan Markle.Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images file

LONDON — Meghan Markle's legal case against a British tabloid got underway Friday, with the Duchess of Sussex challenging the publication of extracts of a letter she wrote to her estranged father who was "exploited" and "harassed" by the press, the court was told by her lawyers.

The Duchess of Sussex, wife of Britain's Prince Harry, is suing Associated Newspapers, the publisher of Britain's Mail on Sunday, for breaching her privacy by printing parts of a letter she wrote to her father after her wedding in 2018.

This was the first court hearing in the privacy case and was largely procedural. It was held online by London's High Court due to the coronavirus social restrictions in place in Britain, with Mr. Justice Warby, the presiding judge, quipping that he was contending with four screens.

The Sussexes team confirmed to NBC News that Harry and Meghan had woken up at 4 a.m. in Los Angeles to remotely join part of the hearing. Meghan's arguments were set out by her legal counsel David Sherborne, a prominent lawyer specializing in privacy, confidentiality and defamation cases.

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Meghan’s lawyer told the court this was "quintessentially a privacy action," and concerned a personal letter written by a daughter to her father that was shown to the world, causing a "rift" between the two.

Acknowledging that often the press acts as a public watchdog, Sherborne contended in this case, the Mail had cherry-picked portions of "a deeply personal handwritten" letter to publish, in order to manipulate readers, and was part of a wider "intrusive" campaign of stories against her.

"It is the defendant's actions in stirring up, creating this dispute that they use as justification for publishing the contents of the letter," he said, adding that no consent was sought from the duchess in advance of the articles being published and there "was no public interest served by the publication."

Instead, he said the letter was "disclosed with the sole and entirely gratuitous purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the defendant's readership" about the royal's private life, "a curiosity deliberately generated by the defendant."

He added that the publisher "deliberately misled the public by presenting a false picture of the letter".

No witnesses took part and Mr. Justice Warby said at the end of the hearing that he will give his ruling on Associated Newspapers' application at a later date, hopefully within a week.

No date has yet been set for the full trial, but the case could turn into a long legal battle, with The Mail on Sunday's legal team suggesting it could call Meghan's father to testify.

"Harry and Meghan are going to have to give up more intimate details to prove their case and therefore it does seem a bit self-defeating ... The cat has already been let out of the bag," royal commentator Camilla Tominey told NBC News.

The paper’s lawyers argue that given Meghan’s royal status, there was legitimate public interest in her personal and family relationships and that Thomas Markle had the right to put his side of events to the public.

Thomas Markle, who was expected to walk his daughter down the aisle, suffered health problems and publicly fell out with her days before the grand wedding at Windsor Castle. Speculation about his attendance dominated the build-up to the ceremony.

Markle, 75, was also found to have staged paparazzi photos of himself in the run-up to the event. He has since criticized the couple in television interviews.

Parts of handwritten letters from Meghan to her father were published by the newspaper in February 2019.

Meghan's lawyers are seeking damages for misuse of private information and breach of her copyright and say the tabloids harassed and humiliated both parties contributing to their fallout.

Earlier this week, court documents showed that in the days before his royal wedding, Harry sent text messages to Thomas Markle, pleading with him to stop engaging with the media and blaming the press for souring their relationship.

"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," Harry's text reads. "So please call me so I can explain. Meg and I are not angry, we just need to speak to u. Thanks."

The couple stunned the public in January, when they announced they intended to "step back" from the royal family, divide their time between the United Kingdom and North America, and start paying their own bills.

Some people in Britain and beyond feel the high-profile pair have been victims of ruthless coverage in the press that at times has been racist.

The couple concluded their final front-line royal duties in March, bidding farewell to fans on their official Instagram account, adding that "while you may not see us here, the work continues."

Earlier this week, Harry and Meghan issued a blunt statement to four of Britain's leading tabloids, including the Daily Mail, saying that they will have "zero engagement" with the newspapers going forward.

Reuters contributed to this report.

CORRECTION (April 24, 10:20 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when The Mail on Sunday published excerpts of a letter Meghan Markle wrote to her father. It was after her wedding, not before.

Laura Saravia and David Rudge contributed.