Who is Jenny Afia, the new face of Harry and Meghan’s defence?

She had already gained a fearsome reputation as the chief defender of Meghan’s privacy before she made an unexpected appearance on The Princes and The Press this week. Authorised by the Duchess of Sussex to deny claims she had been a “difficult or demanding” boss who drove staff to leave, lawyer Jenny Afia’s contribution to the BBC documentary that has sparked palace “fury” took Royal watchers by surprise.

While no other member of the Royal family agreed to take part in media editor Amol Rajan’s two-part series examining the relationship between monarchy and media, it is clear that Meghan had other ideas.

Introducing Afia – who is a partner at Schillings, the London-based legal firm the Sussexes employ to fight their battles – in Monday night’s episode, Rajan confirmed: “The Duchess’s lawyer spoke to me with Meghan’s permission.”

Asked about reports of the Royal’s behaviour behind palace doors, which are now the subject of an internal investigation, Afia, 41, said: “Those stories were false. This narrative that no-one could work for the Duchess of Sussex, that she was too difficult or demanding a boss, and that everyone had to leave, is just not true.”

And there is more to come.

In a trailer for part two, to be aired next Monday, Afia explains: “The overall allegation is that the Duchess of Sussex is guilty of bullying.”

When asked “and is she?” by Rajan, she responds: “Absolutely not”.

Afia is interviewed by Amol Rajan in The Princes and The Press

The intervention is likely to raise eyebrows behind palace gates, where there has long been chatter about a string of staff departures on Meghan (and Harry’s) watch – not to mention that bullying complaint, submitted in October 2018 by Jason Knauf, then the Sussexes’ communications secretary.

Knauf hit the headlines this month when he gave evidence to a Court of Appeal hearing into Meghan’s ongoing case against the Mail on Sunday – which is being spearheaded by Afia – detailing emails and text message exchanges which showed the Duchess had authorised collaboration with the authors of her biography, Finding Freedom.

The correspondence, which also revealed Meghan telling Knauf that she had drafted a letter to her father, Thomas Markle Snr, “with the understanding that it could be leaked”, forced the Duchess into an apology for “unintentionally” misleading the court during an earlier hearing, when Schillings claimed that she did not know whether her communications team had given information to the authors and insisted she had not been contacted by aides for “clarification of any matters relating to the book”.

So just how did Afia – who rises at 4.45am to put in two hours’ work before her young son and seven-year-old daughter, after whose birth she only took 12 weeks’ maternity leave, wake up – find herself at the centre of the Sussexes’ war on the press?

It all began in October 2019, a year after the bullying complaint was submitted, when the couple recruited Schillings to sue the Mail on Sunday’s publishers, Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL) for breach of privacy, copyright and data protection after the newspaper printed the handwritten letter Meghan had sent to her “Daddy” following her wedding in May 2018. Emotions were running high between father and daughter after the former Hollywood lighting director had pulled out of the ceremony at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, at the last minute following a heart attack.

Having previously used the Royal family’s preferred lawyers Harbottle & Lewis to fight their battles, the Sussexes turned to the “attack dog” firm founded in 1984 by Keith Schilling, now 65, who left school at 15.

As the go-to firm for those wanting to obtain injunctions to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are seen as damaging, Schillings appeared to offer the robust approach Harry and Meghan were after. And in its award-winning privacy and reputation lawyer, Afia – who had already represented a string of famous clients including Adele, Madonna, Sir Cliff Richard and their friend Sir Elton John – the Sussexes appeared to have found their perfect protector.

The Sussexes are not the first Royals to adopt a more aggressive legal approach

Credit: WireImage

As one of the country’s leading lawyers, ranked as a “tier 1 leader in her field” by Chambers & Partners, the Spear’s Reputation Management index, as well as being recognised in Billboard’s 2021 Top Music Lawyers, it is clear that Afia isn’t phased by representing the rich and famous. Indeed, the former Young Solicitor of the Year appeared in her own Vogue shoot in 2017 and even features in a poster that can be bought on Amazon.

It must have greatly appealed that the Cambridge graduate had also made a name for herself taking on the online giants, as a member of the Children’s Commissioner’s Digital Task Force.

The “likeable, lovely and bright” lawyer – as she was called in a Tatler profile – was also on the Steering Committee of children’s charity 5Rights and co-authored with Baroness Kidron the report: ‘Disrupted Childhood: the cost of persuasive design’ as well as being a member of the UK advisory board for Common Sense Media, a non-profit committing to “build a digital world where our kids can thrive”.

Here, then, is a woman very much speaking the Sussexes’ language when it comes to social media abuse and online safety. But crucially, she also has a fearsome reputation for taking on the mainstream media that Harry and Meghan so love to hate – despite being married to a journalist, Richard Ferrer, editor of the Jewish News.

Take a piece that Afia wrote for the Huffington Post in 2016, in which she called out the “unscrupulous tactics” of the paparazzi and the “underhand methods English newspapers still resort to to gain scoops”.

Describing intrusion into the Royals’ family life as “real and unjustified”, she appeared to preempt Harry’s sentiments later that year, when he instructed Knauf to release a statement complaining about the treatment of his then-girlfriend Meghan saying: “This is not a game – it is her life and his.”

Afia has become a defender of celebrities’ right not to appear in the newspapers. As she writes on her LinkedIn page: “I help people in the public eye protect their privacy and reputations against arbitrary interference. I believe that privacy is precious and people don’t give up their rights just because they’ve achieved professional success.”

Describing how she has worked at the firm since 2006, having previously trained in the City, she adds: “I’ve been a Schillings partner since 2012; a fact I try to slip into most conversations as nothing makes me prouder.”

Yet it is her prime time protestations on behalf of Meghan on the BBC that are now being slipped into conversation in both Royal and legal circles. To some observers, her appearance on the documentary will feel like part legal defence, part PR as the Sussexes continue to adopt an Americanised approach to fighting their constitutional corner.

While a departure from the Queen’s “never complain, never explain” mantra, they are not the first Royals to adopt a more aggressive approach – with Prince Charles also suing ANL for breach of copyright over the publication of his personal diaries in 2005 and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge successfully winning damages for breach of privacy against French magazine Closer in 2017 after it published photographs of Kate sunbathing topless on holiday.

Yet the unprecedented nature of Afia’s TV intervention suggests that there is more to come from the Sussexes’ chosen lawyer – one who isn’t afraid to play the media at their own game.

The other players in Team Meghan
James Holt, executive director of Archewell Foundation

The only member of Team Sussex who has been with them since their days in the Royal Family, Holt has recently been promoted from Harry and Meghan’s press secretary to executive director of their foundation in Los Angeles. Having previously worked for the Lib Dems, he entered palace life doing PR for the Royal Foundation, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, before moving with the Sussexes to set up their new lives.

Ben Browning, head of content for Archewell Productions and Archewell Audio

A recent hire announced in the Hollywood trade press, celebrated producer Browning will oversee Harry and Meghan’s creative projects: their podcast with Spotify and their television programmes for Netflix. His most high-profile film, Promising Young Woman, was nominated for both an Oscar and a Bafta this year. He is tasked with making programmes that fit with the Sussexes’ mission to “spotlight diverse voices” and create systemic change, while actually being watched.

Genevieve Roth, senior strategic adviser at Archewell Foundation

Roth, an Alaskan and former aide to Hillary Clinton, is the founder of “impact and social change agency” Invisible Hand. With a “lifelong commitment to gender equity”, she hit the headlines after being announced as part of team Archewell thanks to an interview in which she spoke of being married to a black man and admitted: “I am rife with internalised racism and unconscious bias. And to all of the non-black folks reading this, we need to get clear on something: So are you.”

Mandana Dayani, chief operating officer at Archewell

A self-described “entrepreneur, attorney, activist, executive producer, and investor”, Dayani has been seen at the Sussexes’ side during public engagements, including their September trip to New York. She co-founded the I am a Voter movement in 2018, to encourage Americans to the polling booths and has previously hosted a podcast with actress Debra Messing in which they interviewed celebrities and politicians. At Archewell, she oversees day-to-day operations, and has said: “I am so inspired by the vision and unwavering dedication of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to create a more united, truthful, safe and equitable world.”

Andrew Meyer, business manager, and Rick Genow, lawyer

Meyer and Genow have advised the Duchess since she was an actress living in Toronto, and remained in the background during her time in the Royal Family. They helped set up and copyright her business interests, and – in the case of Meyer – was so trusted he was used as a conduit for her now-famous letter to her estranged father Thomas Markle. Nick Collins, who was formerly the Duchess’s agent, is no longer on the scene, according to reports.

Omid Scobie, author

Not an official member of the team but useful nonetheless, Scobie is the go-to Sussex spokes-journalist. Co-author of Finding Freedom, the biography the Duchess belatedly admitted to co-operating with in court, he is a regular on UK and US television defending the couple. In return, the Duchess’s lawyers called his book “extremely anodyne”, “the product of creative licence” and “inaccurate”. 

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