“Democracy fails when your press fails to scrutinise and hold the government accountable, and instead choose to get into bed with them so they can ensure the status quo… The country and the British public deserve to know… We will be better off for it.”
Today, the Duke of Sussex was the first senior member of the Royal Family in more than 130 years to give evidence to a civil court. He also became one of the British establishment’s own – a prince of the realm, no less – to expose what he alleges was illegal information gathering by one of this country’s major tabloid newspaper groups.
Will he receive the praise he deserves for speaking the unspeakable? Unlikely. With all his privilege and wealth, Prince Harry is painted as playing the ultimate victim by the press he hopes to hold accountable. In turn, these tabloids can then claim the victimhood they often hide behind when challenged. Who is a prince to tell the free press anything?
But, when someone with the experience, insights and access to the elite circles that Prince Harry has brings a claim such as the one he is in the High Court pursuing against Mirror Group Newspapers we should all take notice.
In many ways, his wealth and privilege insulate him – he has very little to lose, or gain, in any material or reputational sense from this case. Rather, it is the point of principle which he seems to be advancing in the public interest. Of all the people to speak of the importance of an accountable press for a healthy democracy, truth and decency, it is frankly remarkable that it is one of the British elite’s own. But his level of knowledge of the workings and culture of the British press is a testament to his commitment to bringing about change.
In his extraordinary statement to the court, Prince Harry said “I fully accept and agree with the fact that journalists and the media own the public square, in as much as, if you are in a position of responsibility and or are funded by the taxpayer, the media should have the power to be able to investigate anyone, anytime, for pretty much anything” but that “over the last 15 to 20 years, there are now incredibly powerful media companies who masquerade as journalists and who have, quite literally, hijacked journalistic privileges for their own personal gain and agenda. It’s an unbelievably dangerous place”.
How often do we ever hear anything about “journalistic privileges”?
The prince went on to say that “whoever you are, if you are of interest to the press at that time, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing – if you’re in private or if you’re in public – you are a target. You become a victim of their system”.
“They claim to hold public figures to account, but refuse to hold themselves accountable,” he said. “If they’re supposedly policing society, who on earth is policing them, when even the government is scared of alienating them because position is power. It is incredibly worrying for the entire UK.”
For the fifth in line to the British throne, this claim is about trying “to save journalism as a profession”. However unusual a turn of events that may seem, this newspaper applauds Prince Harry for daring to confront one of the biggest, under-reported, ongoing, scandals of our time: that we have an entire power bloc in this country, which can impact all of our lives, that receives hardly any scrutiny. Not of its owners, intentions or consequences.
“Journalists need to expose those people in the media that have stolen or hijacked the privileges and powers of the press and have used illegal or unlawful means for their own gain and agendas,” his statement said. “I am bringing this claim, not because I hate the tabloid press or even necessarily a section of it, but in order to properly hold the people who have hijacked those privileges, which come with being a member of the press, to account for their actions.”
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In remarks that particularly caught the eye of the Daily Mail et al, the prince put it bluntly: “On a national level, at the moment, our country is judged globally by the state of our press and our government – both of which I believe are at rock bottom.”
That it takes a prince of the British Royal Family to draw such conclusions publicly, rather than our press, says a lot about the current state we are in. Harry is one of the establishment’s own, and this is exactly why the majority of the press – particularly the right-wing tabloids – are so hostile to him. In conjunction with the political class, they are also part of the elite – and to have him call it out will be a little too close to home.
But the real question is: will anything fundamentally change? While Prince Harry has given his testimony and opened himself up to cross-examination, none of the journalists or editors who he says were behind the alleged unlawful intrusions into his life are giving evidence. Fielding questions about specific journalistic practices in tabloid newsrooms is not for the Duke of Sussex.
So will there ultimately be any answers or accountability from the press itself? Beyond some limited high-profile media coverage of the court case, which inevitably always frames the issue as historic phone-hacking allegations – rather than the distorting culture of some of our biggest newspapers and proprietors and editors that is really at its heart?
While the Conservative Government shelved the second part of the landmark Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices, which followed the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal, there is no guarantee that a change of government will help. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party swims in the same toxified waters as the current crop of politicians in charge does – will media reform be high on its list after more than a decade out of power? We will have to wait and see.
But it should be. Because, as Prince Harry has said, if newspapers “can truly believe they are above the law… it’s the general public that suffer. It’s really that simple”.
It is difficult to see how Britain would be in the position it is in now – weakened politically and economically both at home and on the world stage – if a truly independent and accountable press had provided the necessary checks on power all healthy democracies need.
I have never understood how being a journalist isn’t seen as anything but an immense privilege and responsibility. Excavating what is happening around us and why, getting close to the people and events that matter, and having the tools to expose wrongdoing is one of the most fulfilling and important jobs there is. But the truth is, it’s all too often not seen like this at all.
Too much of established British journalism remains an elite, closed club. Close to power and influencing it; while claiming to have none but playing victim when it is scrutinised in the slightest. That it continues to get away with its ability to distort our politics and society is one of the biggest stories, and scandals, of our time. Prince Harry is taking a stand for us all.