In the latest chapter in UK press phone-hacking scandal, Prince Harry gives testimony
Prince Harry appeared in London’s High Court on Monday and Tuesday to argue that articles about him printed in UK tabloids run by Mirror Group Newspapers contained information obtained by illegal means. If the royal’s claims are found to be true it could prove phone hacking on an “industrial scale” at one of Britain’s largest newspaper groups.
Two days in the witness box at London’s High Court have seen Prince Harry rake over the contents of dozens of articles stretching back into the early years of his life as a subject of tabloid interest.
The Duke of Sussex claims 148 articles documenting events such as his mother Princess Diana visiting him at school, a bout of glandular fever, phone arguments with ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy and instances of illegal drug-taking all contain details that journalists obtained by illegal means.
The cumulative impact of a lifetime of intrusive articles created “huge amount of paranoia” the royal said in a witness statement, and the feeling that he couldn’t even trust his doctors.
A lawyer for Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) said details in the articles were obtained by legal methods including buying information from the prince’s acquaintances, reprinting information that had already been published in other newspapers, and press briefings from members of royal staff.
On the stand, Prince Harry said the articles can all be linked to the “hallmarks” of illegal information gathering such as mystery missed calls and voice messages that indicate phone hacking, and evidence of repeated instances of journalists making payments to private investigators.
‘The heart of popular culture’
It is rare that such allegations go to trial. The legal muscle and deep pockets of many British media companies act as an effective deterrent: MGN has paid out around £100 million to around 600 claimants accusing them of phone hacking and obtaining stories through other unlawful means.
But it is even rarer that a member of the royal family testifies in court – Prince Harry is the first senior royal to appear on the stand since 1891.
He brings a unique profile to the case, suggestions of a personal axe to grind, his own deep pockets and a wealth of potential evidence. “Someone like Prince Harry is in a unique position that they will have been subjected to a large number of tabloid articles over a significant period of time,” says Professor Paul Wragg, director of campaign group Hacked Off, which supports victims of press abuse.
In this instance, Prince Harry is the most high-profile one of more than 100 people who are suing MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People tabloids, accusing them of widespread unlawful activities between 1991 and 2011.
The royal is one of four claimants who are being heard at trial as “representative cases”.
Traditionally the British tabloids hold a unique place in national discourse. “They are read right across the country and really set the agenda for public conversation,” says Adrian Bingham, Professor of Modern British History at the University of Sheffield. “Historically, they have been right at the heart of popular culture.”
The period during which the articles submitted as evidence were published coincides with the peak of “a hugely competitive tabloid market, in which competition always trumped ethics”, Bingham adds. “The scoop was everything for the editors. There was little restraint.”
The British public was widely shocked when in 2011 The Guardian newspaper revealed that journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of The World paper had interfered with police investigations into the disappearance of missing schoolgirl Millie Dowler by illegally listening to her voicemail messages.
Further investigations revealed journalists had also hacked the phones of victims of the 2005 London bombings, relatives of deceased British soldiers and numerous celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family.
Criminal cases were brought that saw three journalists and editors from News of the World convicted for illegally acquiring confidential information. Others convicted were private investigators and members of the police.
A judicial public inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson in 2011-12, was based on the premise that within newsrooms, “any illegality that was taking place was done by a limited number of individuals”, Wragg adds.
An ‘industrial scale’
MGN argues that Prince Harry has missed the six-year deadline for making his claim, but it does not deny that it has participated in illegal practice. Prior to the trial this week, the publisher “unreservedly” apologised to the royal for one instance of unlawful information gathering.
Yet the Duke of Sussex and other claimants are aiming to show that practices such as phone hacking were happening on an “industrial scale” – and not just at one group of newspapers.
The trial against MGN is the first of three the royal hopes to bring. He and other claimants are still waiting to hear whether courts will allow two separate cases against the parent companies of The Sun and the Daily Mail tabloids to go to trial.
“Prince Harry’s certainly the figurehead, but what we’re talking about is hundreds of individuals claiming that there have been a serious significant number of breaches of law across a long period of time,” Wragg says.
If found to be true, “it reopens the question of press regulation and the adequacy of press regulation in this country”, Wragg says.
After the prince’s testimony ended on Tuesday defence lawyers said he had failed to produce a “single item” of evidence proving his phone was hacked by journalists working for MGN.
The royal said this was because the journalists in question had used “burner phones” allowing them to destroy call logs.
The case continues.