Courting more controversy: How Harry and Meghan could face 'the privacy trial of the century'

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex's decisions to launch court actions against U.K. newspapers set the stage for legal wranglings with little royal precedent.

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Prince Harry and Meghan arrive before meeting Graca Machel, the widow of the late Nelson Mandela, at the British high commissioner's residence in Johannesburg, South Africa on Oct. 2. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

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Prince Harry and Meghan's recent trip abroad was humming along, gathering all sorts of positive coverage for the couple after they had been buffeted by negative headlines throughout the summer.

Then, the legal dynamite went off. Word emerged that the Duchess of Sussex was launching a court action against the Mail on Sunday, alleging misuse of private information, copyright infringement and a breach of the U.K.'s Data Protection Act 2018 in connection with the paper's publication of portions of a letter she wrote to her father.

It all sets the stage for legal wrangling with little royal precedent, and raises the possibility Meghan — and Harry — might be called to testify in open court.

"Unless this case settles, and that is unlikely given the parties' current positions, this will be the privacy trial of the century," said Robin Callender Smith, honorary professor of media law at Queen Mary University of London.

More legal dynamite followed on Friday when word broke that Harry is to sue the publishers of the Sun and Mirror newspapers over allegations of phone hacking.

"If Harry is prepared to take his claim into a full court battle, as seems to be the case, rather than settle it, then the result will be even more significant than the action taken so recently by his wife," Callender Smith said via email Friday.

In connection with Meghan's case, Callender Smith predicted earlier in the week that she and Harry could face legal costs of at least one million pounds, not including any damages that might be awarded.

"In the 'winner takes all' costs regime that operates in such claims, the loser picks up both legal bills, making such actions the ultimate in high-stakes litigation," Callender Smith said.

Word of Meghan's legal action came via an impassioned statement from Harry posted on a website separate from the couple's regular royal channels. It was an emotional outpouring highly critical of the "relentless propaganda" he says Meghan has faced at the hands of the British tabloid press. He also invoked the memory of his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

"I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person," Harry said. "I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

Harry, shown with his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1987, invoked her memory in a recent statement. (John Redman/The Associated Press)

Whether that message will resonate with the public isn't certain, particularly given how focused Harry has been on ensuring privacy for Meghan and their young son, Archie.

"He thinks the public will join with him like they joined his mother, but he hasn't put enough hours in the bank for the public, whom have not been part of his family moments," said Mark Borkowski, a British public relations guru. "He has separated them from that. He has separated his private life from his public life."

Whatever happens with Meghan's court action, there is little U.K. precedent.

Callender Smith said privacy and copyright issues last had a royal airing nearly 20 years ago, when Harry's father, Prince Charles, was trying to stop the Mail on Sunday from "profiting from candid extracts" from journals he wrote when he was in Hong Kong for the Chinese handover ceremonies in 1997.

Charles eventually won his claims, but "at no stage did he give direct evidence in court on which he could be cross-examined," Callender Smith said. 

Prince Charles steps off the plane after arriving in Hong Kong in 1997. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

"Twenty years on and this new battle will reflect significantly harsher rules of engagement on privacy and freedom of speech issues," said Callender Smith.

At that time, such topics were in an embryonic stage, and there was "more deference by the courts to the Royal Family."

Since then, however, there have been legal developments, and case law that flowed from the phone-hacking scandal involving British celebrities.

"Both Meghan — and possibly her husband — are likely to have to appear in court in person," said Callender Smith.

Borkowski said Harry isn't winning any friends in the media and likens what's happened with Meghan's case to picking a fight with a wasp's nest.

"Whether or not you believe the old media is necessary, I think he's finding that it is necessary, because maybe if he'd behaved a little bit more openly … he might have got more sympathy."

But if the tabloids picked a fight with Harry and Meghan expecting them not to fight back, then they were mistaken, said Amber Melville-Brown, a partner and global head of media and reputation for Withersworldwide, an international law firm.

'' 'Lawyering up,' employing an arsenal full of legal weapons and lobbing incendiary, venal attacks indicates that the couple are more than up for the fight," she said via email from New York late Friday afternoon.

But nothing is certain with the legal cases at play.

"Whether fighting on two fronts against various media defendants at the same time is the right battle strategy remains to be seen," said Melville-Brown.

If Meghan's case does make it to court, it's likely to attract international attention.

"Many other aspects of Meghan's relationship with her father and the reasons why the Mail on Sunday felt that was in the public interest to explore such matters are likely to be aired extensively," said Callender Smith. 

"In one sense, the Mail on Sunday has been given a carte blanche by the Duchess to fight to protect ostensible press freedoms, provided it, too, is prepared to pick up the eventual tab if it loses."

Finally — here's Archie

Meghan holds her son, Archie, as she meets Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sept. 25. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Amid the generally flattering reports from Harry and Meghan's 10-day trip to Africa, there was one long-awaited moment: a chance for a good glimpse of their five-month-old son, Archie.

The baby was all smiles as his parents proudly introduced him to Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a visit in Cape Town.

It was a happy moment during a trip that produced what Borkowski described as "acres of positive coverage" for the couple.

Harry and Meghan dance during a visit to the township of Nyanga in Cape Town, South Africa in September. (Betram Malgas/AFP/Getty Images)

All that stood in marked contrast to the criticism they faced recently over everything from the public funds spent to refurbish their new home to the secrecy surrounding Archie's birth and christening.

But for the first nine days of the trip, the attention was focused on the people and the numerous social issues Harry and Meghan wanted to highlight — from support for women and education to environmental concerns and efforts to clear landmines. 

For Harry, that offered up some of the more poignant moments of the trip, invoking the memory of Diana and her efforts around the same issue more than two decades ago.

Harry visits the place in Huambo, Angola, where his mother was photographed in 1997, in an iconic image of her efforts to encourage the removal of landmines. (Dominic Lipinski/Getty Images)

Here comes another wedding

The engagement of Princess Beatrice to property tycoon Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi sets the stage for the fourth royal wedding in two years.

No specific date was revealed when Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of the elder daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York the other day, but the nuptials will be in 2020, and a spring wedding in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle seems like a good bet. 

Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi will marry next year. (Princess Eugenie/Buckingham Palace/The Associated Press)

Beatrice, 31, and Mapelli Mozzi, 35, reportedly have known each other for years and started dating after seeing each other again at the wedding of her younger sister, Eugenie, last October. 

Mapelli Mozzi has a two-year-old son with his former fiancee, Dara Huang.

Much social media excitement from Beatrice, Eugenie and their mother, Sarah, swirled after the announcement of the engagement.

"I know what a mother feels so I have tears of joy. I am so proud of this sensational news," Sarah shared with her Twitter followers.

The wedding will follow three other recent royal marriage ceremonies, all at St. George's Chapel: Harry and Meghan; Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank last year; and Lady Gabriella Windsor to Thomas Kingston last spring.

It's also, some observers noted, likely to be the last high-profile royal wedding for several years.

Royally quotable

Meghan speaks during a visit to The Justice Desk, a non-governmental organization in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town. (Betram MalgasAFP/Getty Images)

"I am here with you as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of colour and as your sister."

— Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, during a visit to The Justice Desk, a human rights organization, in Nyanga Township, South Africa, on the first day of the recent visit.

Royals in Canada

Queen Elizabeth and Gov. Gen. Georges Vanier chat at the Citadel in Quebec City during her 1964 visit to Canada. (National Archives of Canada/C-056999/The Canadian Press)

Throughout Canadian history, the relationship between the monarchy and Quebec has been fraught

At some points, residents in the province have offered a rapturous welcome to members of the Royal Family. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived to a warm reception when they started their Canadian visit in Quebec City in 1939.

Fast forward to the early fall of 1964, as the Quiet Revolution was bringing sweeping change to the province and the emergence of Quebec nationalism, and it was a different story. 

Protesters booed and turned their backs on the Queen as she toured Quebec City. Some anti-monarchy protesters were also clubbed by police on Oct. 10, 1964, a date that became known as "Truncheon Saturday" or "Le Samedi de la Matraque."

Police struggle with a demonstrator taken into custody on Oct. 10, 1964, just outside the Quebec National Assembly as Queen Elizabeth arrives. (The Canadian Press)

Elizabeth was back in the province to open the Montreal Summer Olympics in 1976 and watch her daughter, Princess Anne, compete, but there was no official visit to Quebec again until 1987.

  • Our friends at CBC Archives have taken a closer look at the Queen's 1964 Canadian visit, which was organized to mark the 100th anniversary of the conferences at Quebec City and Charlottetown, which helped lay the groundwork for Confederation in 1867. 

Royal reads

  • Harry's trip to Malawi gave him the chance to promote conservation initiatives close to his heart — and to take over National Geographic's Instagram account for a day. [The Guardian] 

  • Prince Andrew has been visiting Australia to little fanfare, with one local report suggesting it's because of the intense media scrutiny he's faced over his friendship with the now-deceased convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. [] 

  • It's exceedingly rare for a royal servant to get the Royal Family's blessing to write a book about life behind palace walls, but Angela Kelly, the Queen's dresser and confidante, did. [The Telegraph] 

  • With the 50th anniversary this year of the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales, there's been a lot of looking back to that time. Charles himself has revealed he was targeted by Welsh nationalists while he was at university in Wales for a brief period in 1969. [The Telegraph] 

  • A 97-year-old man who called himself "India's biggest fan of the Royal Family" has died. [BBC] 

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.


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