The fight to protect the identities of Meghan Markle's friends wages on.
In the Duchess of Sussex's ongoing lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday and its parent company, Associated Newspapers, over the outlet's publishing of excerpts from a private letter she sent to her father, Thomas Markle, a second conflict has emerged over the names of friends who participated in a People article in 2019. The magazine described the friends, who requested anonymity, as women "who form an essential part of Meghan's inner circle." As one "longtime friend and former costar" summarized, they wanted to "stand up against the global bullying we are seeing and speak the truth about our friend." Markle's representatives have previously denied that she was involved with the article.
Earlier this month, the duchess filed an application to stop Associated Newspapers from publicly naming the five women. In a witness statement penned by Markle and obtained by E! News, she claimed Associated Newspapers was threatening to publish the names. "These five women are not on trial, and nor am I," she wrote. "The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case—that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter."
She concluded her statement with, "I respectfully ask the court to treat this legal matter with the sensitivity it deserves, and to prevent the publisher of the Mail on Sunday from breaking precedent and abusing the legal process by identifying these anonymous individuals—a privilege that these newspapers in fact rely upon to protect their own unnamed sources."
On Wednesday, July 29, the matter was raised before Mr Justice Warby during a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Though Markle nor Prince Harry attended, Justin Rushbrooke QC addressed the court on behalf of Markle to argue the application.
"The application raises quite a short, but very important point," Rushbrooke said, "which is to what extent the court should protect the identity of confidential, journalistic sources who are not parties to the action, nor at this early stage can it be said that they are witnesses in the action."
He continued, "We say at least four of the five sources have no real role at all on the issue raised by the defendant's defense regarding the interview with People magazine in the US."
"One of those [sources], and only one on the claimant's case," Rushbrooke noted, "made a passing reference to the letter written by the claimant to her father, which lies at the heart of this claim for invasion of privacy."
Rushbrooke also rejected Associated Newspapers' alleged claim that "by putting their names into a public court document," Markle "compromised" her friends' right to privacy.
"The true position is, let there be no doubt about it, that the claimant has done nothing of the sort. It was the defendant who made the interviews with People relevant," he said in court.
"It was the defendant who forced the claimant to identify the names of the five friends in a court document by serving a request for further information that required those names to be given and, for her part, we submit that the claimant has done what she reasonably and sensibly could to protect their confidentiality and privacy rights."
Rushbrooke also brought up the Mail's news coverage of this case. "Within hours, it is splashing extensive details of the response, the publicly available part of the document, over its website," he said. "In other words, for its own commercial purposes." He further blamed two MailOnline articles, one that noted Markle had named the women in confidential papers and another regarding her application to stop the women from being publicly named, for sparking publicity.
"Let there be no doubt about it, these two publications are what set off the chain reaction of other publicity given by other organs to the response," he said. "It was the defendant and only the defendant because only the defendant had the document which started the wildfire."
Rushbrooke argued, "Other litigants do not make commercial fodder out of the other side's pleadings, but since this one does and since this one has asserted in correspondence that this very document is properly reportable by the media–although they graciously said they won't publish it until the outcome of today's hearing—that is precisely why we say an order…is necessary."
Antony White QC, who was representing Associated Newspapers, said, "The five individuals have already been identified, not under compulsion, but as part of the response to the request for further information."
"The question is not 'Should their identities be disclosed?'—that has happened. It is 'Should they be anonymized in these proceedings?'" White asked.
White argued that "there is no proper evidential basis [for the application]" and said "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." Rushbrooke had noted in court that "Friend B" has provided a witness statement in support of Markle's application.
White further raised, "The information they disclosed to People was information about the claimant, but is not said by her to be private or information that she seeks to protect."
The hearing concluded without a decision from Warby, who said it will come in writing as soon as he can.