Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's lawsuit over letter to her father lets the tabloids win

The reasons why the tabloid papers are no longer as powerful — falling circulations and revenues — just mean they are all the more desperate for exclusives.
Image: Harry and Meghan
Britain's Prince Harry and his wife Meghan in London on March 5, 2020.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP via Getty Images
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By James Rodgers, lecturer in international journalism at City University of London

The legal arguments are being made remotely, but in every other sense Meghan Markle’s lawsuit against the publisher of two British tabloid newspapers will be contested just as fiercely as any face-to-face confrontation.

Prince Harry’s wife has had a bad relationship with certain sections of the British press since before she married into the royal family in 2018. There are many who will sympathize with her decision to take legal action. But it is a bad idea.

There are many who will sympathize with her decision to take legal action. But it is a bad idea.

The timing does not help. When she launched her legal action in October, Meghan could not have known that the case would come to court in the middle of the worst global health crisis in recent memory.

The timing of Meghan and Harry’s latest move against the press — while the world worries over how it will emerge from the coronavirus — is their choice, though.

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The glamorous, polarizing couple announced April 19 that they would no longer be dealing with the four biggest-selling British tabloids, one of which, the Daily Mail, is owned by the publisher that Meghan is suing. The pair’s statement accused the papers of coverage that was “distorted, false, or invasive beyond reason.”

Meghan and Harry have their supporters in the British press. An article on the website of the left-leaning New Statesman called their decisions “long overdue” on the grounds that the papers in question “were intent on making their lives worse.” And it’s inarguable that Meghan has taken a beating in the press, generally.

Analysis conducted and published in January by the Guardian (a left-leaning liberal paper that is no great flag-waver for the royal family) found that Meghan got twice as many negative headlines as positive ones. A leading member of the Labour Party (some of whose members think that Britain would be better off without a royal family at all) described press coverage of Meghan as “intrusive and racist.”

Stories such as one speculating whether the duchess might be descended from slaves make you realize why.

That is not the kind of coverage that has actually led Meghan to sue, although it presumably contributed to her decision, as well as to the couple’s dramatic break from the queen and decampment to North America.

The couple’s decision to move across the pond has arguably given the press more ammunition, however. A columnist for the Daily Mail dismissed Harry and Meghan’s April statement as “frivolous and sententious,” noting it had been issued from “distant Los Angeles.”

That is intended to sting. The implication is that Harry and Meghan are living in luxury in Los Angeles, oblivious to the difficulty of life in lockdown London.

The case that actually prompted this particular lawsuit involved the publication in the Mail on Sunday of extracts from a personal letter which Meghan had written to her father, Thomas Markle. She is suing for “the alleged misuse of private information, infringement of copyright and breach of the Data Protection Act 2018,” as the BBC reported at the time the action was announced.

The Mail on Sunday and its parent company, Associated Newspapers, deny the allegations and have made clear they intend to contest the case.

The court will decide — but there are unlikely to be any winners.

It is pretty hard to see what victory would look like because — even via video link, in the age of social distancing — the case will provide just the kind of courtroom drama that makes for sensational tabloid copy.

In addition to the discussion of the letter, media reports have already quoted text messages sent by Meghan and Harry to her father. With celebrities stuck inside and public events canceled, tabloids are dying for gossip. This kind of juicy lawsuit is giving them exactly what they want — especially if speculation that Markle himself might testify against his daughter proves to be true.

To Harry and Meghan’s credit, their decision to refuse to deal with “invasive” tabloids has a certain logic in an age when social media means they can communicate directly with fans and admirers — and, in doing so, keep greater control over their message and perhaps their sanity.

It is not enough. Perhaps what they really want is the power to ban tabloids from writing about them at all. They do not, and cannot, have that power.

The tabloids are also no longer the force they once were. The fact that the Sussexes have the option of not dealing with them shows that.

Take The Sun, one of the papers the couple will no longer deal with. In the 1990s, when it obsessively followed Princess Diana’s every move (and their treatment of his mother has been a factor in Harry’s hostility to the press), The Sun sold more than three million copies a day. By late 2019, that was down to 1.2 million.

Readers hungry for royal gossip now have endless websites and social media content to satisfy their curiosity without turning to the tabloids.

But the reasons why the tabloids are no longer as powerful — falling circulations and revenues — just mean they are all the more desperate for exclusives. Acting against them will not make them lose interest, and risks doing exactly the opposite.

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