LONDON — Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and the wife of Prince Harry, won a decisive victory in her long-running legal feud with a British tabloid on Thursday, as an appeals court rejected a bid by the publisher of the paper, The Mail on Sunday, to force a trial over her claim that it violated her privacy by publishing an anguished letter she sent to her estranged father in 2018.
The three judges upheld a judgment by a High Court judge in February that The Mail’s publication of the letter did not require a trial because it was “manifestly excessive and hence unlawful.” Meghan, an American and a former actress, had a “reasonable expectation that the contents of the letter would remain private.”
The decision will spare Meghan a sensational trial in which she might have had to testify against her father, Thomas Markle, a retired Hollywood lighting designer, with whom she fell out before her wedding to Prince Harry in May 2018.
In the letter, she accused Mr. Markle, who did not attend the ceremony and later spoke to the tabloids about their rift, of breaking her heart into a “million pieces.”
The ruling also let Meghan off the hook for misleading the court in denying that she engaged with the authors of a flattering book about the couple. Her apology for that erroneous statement, which she blamed on a faulty memory, was a public relations embarrassment, but the decision on Thursday means it will be no more than that.
The statement, the court said, had no bearing on the legal question of whether The Mail violated her privacy. “This was, at best, an unfortunate lapse of memory on her part, but it does not seem to me to bear on the issues raised in the grounds of appeal,” said the judge, Geoffrey Vos, writing on behalf of the three-judge panel.
Lawyers for The Mail’s publisher, Associated Newspapers, argued that Meghan’s involvement in trying to shape the book showed a pattern of careful management of her public image. As a public figure, they said, she should have been aware there was a chance the letter would be leaked. The Mail obtained the letter, presumably from Mr. Markle, and published excerpts in February 2019.
The Mail cited emails between the duchess and her communications secretary at the time, Jason Knauf, in which she asked him to review a draft of the letter. “Obviously everything I have drafted is with the understanding that it could be leaked so I have been meticulous in my word choice,” she wrote.
The duchess, he testified, asked whether addressing Mr. Markle as “Daddy” would be a smart public relations strategy. “Given I’ve only ever called him daddy,” she wrote, “it may make sense to open as such (despite him being less than paternal), and in the unfortunate event that it leaked it would pull at the heartstrings.”
The court acknowledged that the new evidence suggested Meghan worried the letter might be leaked. However, it concluded that even if that were presented in a trial, it would not alter the decision by the High Court judge, Mark Warby, that The Mail had violated her privacy by publishing excerpts from it.
“The contents of the letter were private when it was written and when it was published, even if the claimant, it now appears, realized that her father might leak its contents to the media,” the court declared.
Mr. Markle, 77, submitted a witness statement on behalf of The Mail in which he said he decided to release the letter to correct misperceptions about him in an unflattering article published by People magazine. The letter, he said, “actually signaled the end of our relationship, not a reconciliation.”
Experts on the news media said the ruling was not a surprise because the case was more about privacy and copyright than press freedom. If Meghan had been writing to a government official, said Meera Selva, the deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, “it would be easier to argue that it is in the public interest to publish it.”
For Harry and Meghan, who have been in a feud with the tabloids, it was a striking victory but not one that seemed likely to end the bitterness between them and the news media. Harry has a separate lawsuit pending against two other tabloids over accusations that they hacked his cellphone.
“In the nearly three years since this began, I have been patient in the face of deception, intimidation and calculated attacks,” the duchess said in a statement. “The courts have held the defendant to account, and my hope is that we all begin to do the same. Because as far removed as it may seem from your personal life, it’s not. Tomorrow it could be you.”
Meghan, who now lives with Harry and their two children in Montecito, Calif., has recast herself in the United States as a celebrity, a business owner, an investor and a social activist. But in Britain, where the couple’s rift with the royal family still resonates, the trial has earned Meghan a mix of sympathy and scorn.
The Sun, another tabloid, seized on her admission that she had misled the court, running the headline “Little Miss Forgetful” above an unflattering caricature of Meghan, drawn from “Little Miss,” an English children’s book series.
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