The Duchess of Sussex has applied to the High Court to stop The Mail and Mail on Sunday from being able to reveal the names of five of her friends who spoke anonymously to a US magazine about the bullying she said she has faced.
The women’s names were given to the judge and to the newspapers for its defence, confidentially, by the duchess earlier this month as part of her ongoing lawsuit against the papers’ publisher, Associated Newspapers (ANL).
At a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Meghan’s barrister Justin Rushbrooke QC said forcing the Duchess of Sussex to make public the identities of her five friends was “an unacceptable price to pay” for pursuing her legal action against ANL.
He said Meghan’s five friends were entitled to “a very high level of super-charged right of confidentiality”.
Meghan is suing ANL over five articles, two in the Mail on Sunday and three on MailOnline, which were published in February 2019 and reproduced sections of a handwritten note she sent to her estranged father Thomas Markle, 75, in August 2018.
Lawyers for the duchess claim the story breached her privacy.
ANL claims it only included the letter because it had already been referenced by Meghan’s friends in an interview with People magazine in the US, published in February last year.
A confidante told the American publication about its content: “She’s like ‘Dad, I’m so heartbroken. I love you. I have one father. Please stop victimising me through the media so we can repair our relationship’.”
Associated Newspapers said in a defence court document: “Information in the People interview about the claimant’s relationship and dealings with her father, including the existence of the letter and a description of its contents and the claimant’s father’s letter in response, could only have come (directly or indirectly) from the claimant.”
It added that Mr Markle had revealed the letter to correct the “false” impression Meghan’s friends had given about his actions in their interview.
The duchess’s five friends who gave the People interview are identified only as A-E in court documents.
Her legal team has claimed in court documents that she did not know the People magazine article was due to appear, would not have agreed to the letter’s contents being revealed, and after its publication she phoned friend A to express “her distress”.
Mr Rushbrooke said “there is ample evidence before the court” to support the duchess’s application to maintain the anonymity of her five friends.
He added that one of the five, known only as friend B, had provided a witness statement to the court in support of the application.
Mr Rushbrooke said Friend B was “the best possible person” to provide evidence as “she is the one who actually orchestrated the interviews”.
He told the court: “These were confidential sources who gave the interviews on condition of anonymity.”
Mr Rushbrooke also said: “The defendant, in its own coverage – going right back to the first article… that gave rise to this entire litigation – they themselves describe the interviews as anonymous.”
In a witness statement submitted as part of the application, Meghan accused ANL of attempting to “create a circus and distract from the point of this case” to “evade accountability”.
She said the women “made a choice on their own to speak anonymously with a US media outlet more than a year ago, to defend me from the bullying behaviour of Britain’s tabloid media”.
“Each of these women is a private citizen, young mother, and each has a basic right to privacy,” she said, claiming the threat to expose them was “for no reason other than clickbait and commercial gain”.
She said the move was “vicious” and one that “poses a threat to their emotional and mental well-being”.
“The Mail on Sunday is playing a media game with real lives,” she added.
Antony White QC, representing ANL, told the court the five friends have already been identified in court papers.
He added: “The question is not ‘should their identities be disclosed’, that has happened, it is ‘should they be anonymised in these proceedings?'”
Mr White said: “There is no proper evidential basis (for the application).
“There is no evidence at all from four of the five friends and the evidence from the fifth (friend B) has been shown to be unsatisfactory.”
Earlier in the hearing, Mr Rushbrooke appeared to accidentally say the surname of one of the five friends.
Mr Justice Warby immediately directed that the individual’s name was not to be reported.
He said he will give his decision on the duchess’s application in writing at a later date.