Prince Harry’s Trilogy Battle with the Press Seconds Out for Round One
The phoney war is over – Prince Harry’s phone-hacking wars have begun, reports Dan Evans
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The bell rang last week for the opening round of the Duke of Sussex’s trilogy fight with the British tabloid press. First up at the High Court in London are Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN).
Britain’s biggest news publishers – erstwhile employers of Piers Morgan – are accused of perpetrating 16 years of illegal information gathering against Prince Harry, beginning in 1995 when he was just 12.
Three newspapers belonging to MGN, say Harry’s lawyers, intercepted his communications and those of his family and associates including his parents Prince (now King) Charles, Princess Diana, and brother Prince William.
The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and the Sunday People, it is alleged, spent fortunes on shadowy private investigators to snoop and steal everything from medical and financial records to details of Harry’s education, military service, and even his real-time movements and location.
In order to get to Harry, seeking stories and pictures to sell for profit, these tabloids allegedly hacked and blagged – obtained by deception – the most intimate personal information of the people he came into contact with.
Nothing and nobody were off-limits, Harry’s lawyers say, between the period of 1995 and 2011, taking in not only the aftermath of Diana’s death in a Paris subway but continuing right into the Leveson Inquiry into… media criminality.
By ‘vacating’ five previous trial dates by paying off claimants – frequently at the eleventh hour – MGN had insulated its former executive board and legal advisors from allegations (strongly denied) that it fraudulently concealed newsroom crimes from shareholders.
But it is now entering the ring with a new fighting strategy it, clearly, believes in more than it fears the possibility of negative findings about its top brass of yesteryear.
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MGN is pinning its hopes on the UK’s Limitation Act, which puts a six-year time limit on bringing such civil legal actions.
After actively ducking the fight for seven years – during which MGN has been oft accused of frustrating individual claims through lack of engagement – it is now looking for the equivalent of a technical knock-out.
MGN says that Harry and three other representative claimants – including former Coronation Street actors Michael Le Vell and Nikki Sanderson and Fiona Wightman, ex-wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse – “should reasonably have known” they had claims back in 2015 when MGN made limited admissions in a case called ‘Gulati vs MGN’ about criminal newsroom behaviour at the Sunday Mirror.
The four all rely on public denials of wrongdoing by key MGN staff – much of which was given under sworn oath to Leveson and televised – and claim the concealment of evidence, as reasons why their cases should be allowed.
Among those key MGN staff is Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror’s editor from 1995 to 2004 who has since made himself Harry’s greatest public critic, and of whom we’ll hear a lot in this trial.
Morgan, however, is not expected to enter the witness box – where his testimony could be tested under cross-examination. Instead, he is electing to attack from the sidelines – as he did last week with criticism of Harry for bringing his “privacy” claim at all.
“I suggest he gets out of court and apologises to his family for the disgraceful invasion of privacy that he’s been perpetrating,” he said.
What counts here, though, is the evidence before the court.
By electing not to defend himself under oath, in person, to the judge, Morgan risks findings being made in absentia about the claimants’ case — which he denies — that he “must have known” about criminal newsgathering conspiracies at MGN on his watch.
Harry himself will make history next month as the first senior royal to enter a witness box since the modern Royal Courts of Justice opened its doors in 1882 – as first revealed by Byline Times.
That appearance will inevitably be whipped by some mainstream media outlets into a spectacle thick with perceived subtext about his relationships with his family and more – Morgan has telegraphed as much.
Wholly irrelevant to Harry’s case as that undoubtedly is, it may serve some of his critics to conflate a justified inquisition into the highly-illegal alleged theft of personal information, phone-tapping and physically-intrusive surveillance over 16 years, with a supposedly hypocritical desire to curtail free speech.
For the stakes in this case, as far as some of the foremost powers in global media are concerned, are extremely high.
Though the public’s eyes and ears will be on the detail of Harry’s testimony – including alleged intrusions into his friendship with the late television presenter Caroline Flack, whose suicide in 2020 was blamed in part on undue tabloid attention – the eyes of Harry’s future opponents will be on the judge, Mr Justice Fancourt.
That’s because bouts II and III in this unfolding trilogy battle rest on his application of the Limitation Act with three potential outcomes and only one near-certainty – that his judgment, when eventually handed down some months from now, will be appealed by one side or the other.
The first potential outcome is that he agrees that, despite the claimants’ arguments that MGN concealed the vast majority of its wrongdoing, the ‘limitation clock’ began in May 2015 with the ‘Gulati’ findings of Fancourt’s predecessor, Mr Justice Mann.
That would effectively bring an end to the litigation facing MGN and send a powerful message to Harry’s other opponents at the Sun and its now-closed stablemate the News of the World that it too might succeed in knocking out up to 25,000 new claims with that argument.
In that eventuality, Harry’s recently-initiated case against the Mail titles, which allege phone-hacking and misuse of private information, could also be in trouble. Although, unlike MGN and News Group Newspapers (NGN), its publisher Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) has always denied any wrongdoing (and continues to do so), leaving ANL lacking an obvious starting point for its own Limitation Act countdown clock.
The second outcome would be a partial victory for the defendants in which certain categories of articles are excluded from damages. MGN might consider this a worthwhile reward for its risk in going to trial at all, given that it would likely vastly reduce its pay-out costs going forward.
The third outcome would be a vindication of the claimants’ arguments that, despite some limited admissions and public apologies to victims, MGN concealed the vast majority of its wrongdoing and, in doing so, denied many individuals a sound legal basis from which to pursue a legal action.
If that happens, MGN will face significant costs – financial and reputational – while Harry will open the door to further courtroom rumbles with opponents he would be keen to see in front of a judge.
The first piece of business will be Murdoch’s NGN, in the same court, with probably the same judge, in Spring 2024, where serious allegations of concealment and destruction of evidence would be unpicked along with the alleged involvement in a cover-up of senior executive figures including James Murdoch and sitting News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks (which the company denies).
Hugh Grant’s case against the Sun is running alongside Harry’s and makes extraordinary allegations including of burglary and land-line tapping against the tabloid, which the newspaper denies, but which feed into a toxic narrative of corruption and power that has allegedly cost NGN some £1.3bn+ already in costs and damages and which it wants to go away, one way or another, as quickly as possible.
And there is the final big beast in Harry’s sights – and perhaps the most dangerous of the three. In March, he joined Hugh Grant, Doreen Lawrence, Elton John, David Furnish and Sadie Frost in facing Associated Newspapers in court for the first time.
The Mail’s publisher has always “unequivocally” denied any hacking at its titles and has had years of opportunity to watch and learn from its Fleet Street rivals’ courtroom lessons. Of the three, ANL also has the furthest to fall; the most reputation to defend.
Expect it to take nothing lying down. Expect a trilogy finale for the ages. Expect plenty of blood on the carpet. And make sure you’re all stocked up on popcorn.
Dan Evans is the Founding Editor of Byline Investigates. He is is a witness for the claimants in ‘Various vs MGN’ and ‘Various vs NGN’