Published on 22 January 2020
Carole Watson is a Senior lecturer in media law, University of Sunderland, and member of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) media law examinations board.
A former national newspaper journalist, here she discusses how the Sussexes’ saga could set new ground when it comes to law and the media.
“If you think Harry and Meghan are ground-breaking for splitting from the Royal Family and moving stateside, they’re also making history when it comes to a love-hate relationship with the British press.
They just love Vogue and Oprah Winfrey, but spitting blood with everyone else, even the traditionally-gushing royal correspondents.
When I was a journalist on the Daily Mirror and at Grazia magazine, the usual Royal reaction to any negative or intrusive coverage was: “Never complain, never explain.”
There were odd occasions when the Royals have had run-ins with the tabloids – the Queen, for example, has sued twice for copyright, over her Christmas Day speech and an image of the Duchess of York and Beatrice. But usually any complaints are dealt with quietly and discreetly.
So the idea of Meghan appearing at the High Court in London suing a Sunday newspaper for publishing a private letter is unfathomable. It’ll be like fast-forwarding to a sensationalist future episode of The Crown for media law junkies. What will she wear? What will she say?
It seems the Sussexes need a full time team of lawyers right now – it’s a shame Meghan didn’t learn the basics of law while appearing as an attorney in Suits and save herself a few thousand pounds.
First up is that legal battle with the Mail on Sunday for copyright, privacy and data protection over the letter she wrote to her estranged father Thomas Markle, which she says they illegally published. It’ll be an interesting case, if not settled behind closed doors, over whether the media can intrude into the privacy of the Royal Family because they are public figures or not.
Further, the couple have now issued legal warnings over paparazzi photos taken of Meghan and baby Archie on a walk through a public park in Canada. This time, she is complaining about harassment as well as intrusion into privacy.
Whatever the outcomes of these cases, they will set legal precedents in future for other high-profile figures who often want to have their cake and eat it. With positive coverage of engagements and visits to charities comes scrutiny over £2 million public money spent on doing up a cottage and climate-busting transatlantic travel.
These are all legal and ethical issues which we already teach students in their media law modules here so we produce responsible journalists who conform to the law.
But perhaps we now need a whole module in the Royals and media law as the Sussexes wage war on the press and want to control the narrative of what is published and by whom. I can’t imagine we will run out of examples.”