BY BRIAN CATHCART
THE BIG British newspapers, and especially the papers of the Mail group, want control. They want to make people behave in ways of which they approve and they will stop at nothing to ensure they do.
If necessary, they are prepared to destroy lives, to vilify and hound their targets into abject misery by publishing a relentless torrent of articles that are not just hostile but very often dishonest. They seek to punish these targets by making the public hate them.
That is what happened to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The Mail papers (and others in the rightwing press) did not like her and she would not obey their orders, so they went for her.
Week after week and month after month they attacked. They said she snubbed and mistreated her own mother, They said her private secretary quit because she (the Duchess) was ‘difficult’. They said she spent extravagantly on luxury fittings for her Windsor home, including ‘splashing out’ £5,000 on a copper bath. All denied.
Nothing was too trivial or too dark to be exploited. One story was headlined: ‘How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack – beloved of all millennials – is fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder’. Another, steeped in racist overtones, declared: ‘Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed…’
They dish this stuff out – monstering, it is called – because they can. They have no meaningful regulation to stop them and while the laws of libel and privacy may look fine on paper only the rich can count on being able to uphold their rights. Better still, from the papers’ point of view, members of the royal family don’t sue, so the Duchess was – or so it appeared – a defenceless target.
Not any more.
In fact in the space of a fortnight she and her husband, Prince Harry have both won resounding victories over the Mail papers. On 1 February a London court heard that the Mail on Sunday had admitted publishing a ‘baseless, false and defamatory’ article alleging that Prince Harry had neglected his duties towards the Royal Marines.
And now we have the Duchess’s resounding victory. She took action only when the paper did something utterly outrageous, publishing long extracts from a very private letter she wrote to her father. And that action has been comprehensively vindicated. Without even having to go to trail she has secured an unequivocal verdict that the Mail on Sunday is guilty of unlawfully breaching her privacy.
If we lived in a halfway honourable world, the Mail on Sunday’s editor, Ted Verity, would have resigned by now. Twice in two weeks his decision-making has been faulted before the law. But the Mail is not like that. He and his employers at Associated Newspapers were vindictive, mean-spirited, vain people before this case began and they remain so now it is over.
They must be wondering, however, what to do next, so comprehensive is their defeat. The judge not only found for the Duchess on privacy but he effectively gave her the victory in her second claim, on breach of copyright. There was one minor, technical aspect of that issue on which he found himself unable to provide a ‘summary judgment’ – whether the Duchess shared copyright ownership with anyone else – but that is not a matter that Associated can exploit.
Will Associated seek leave to appeal? If they possibly can, they surely will – that is their standard operating procedure – but legal experts say that in this sort of case, after this sort of judgment, their options will be limited.
So the Sussexes have bitten back, and they have drawn blood. They have successfully defied the controllers and the destroyers. What difference will it make?
The most important is that it reminds the world what the Mail papers really are. They are exposed as cruel, intrusive and reckless with the lives of others – and they break the law. Next time you scroll down the MailOnline ‘sidebar of shame’ remember what is the kind of journalism underpins it.
The Duchess’s victory will also temper the behaviour of papers towards her, though it will not alter their hostility. These papers don’t care about paying damages – English courts award victims relatively paltry sums – but they prefer not to be exposed as lawbreakers. They will be more careful, and they will concentrate on kinds of abuse that are not actionable.
This is also an important moment for the women who are so often the targets of press monstering in Britain. A year ago the television presenter Caroline Flack took her own life after enduring months of hostile treatment from papers fully aware that her mental health was fragile.
The actor Sienna Miller and the singer Charlotte Church told the Leveson Inquiry of their experiences at the hands of newspapers that were determined to incite hatred towards them.
Another actor, Caroline Quentin, recently described how she has still not fully recovered from the effects of newspaper harassment and intrusion 20 years after the event. It damaged her relationships with her father, her mother and a sister, she said. ‘And it’s vile, actually. It’s vile to know that some shitty little man in a dirty raincoat knows all your medical history, your private stuff, whether or not you are going to have a baby or miscarry a baby.’
It is extremely rare for a woman target to hold her attackers to account, not least because very few can afford to. By defeating the Mail papers the Duchess of Sussex may not have opened a path towards wider justice, but she has at least altered the terms of the debate.