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5 June 2023

The new front in Prince Harry’s battle with the tabloids

Even if the Duke of Sussex fails to prove any unlawful behaviour by the Mirror Group, he is likely to score some kind of victory.

By William Turvill

The latest chapter in Prince Harry’s relentless battle against Britain’s tabloid press is under way. From early May 2023, shortly after the coronation of King Charles, and through into June, the High Court in London will be the venue for a new phone-hacking trial pitting Harry against the publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People.

The New Statesman has obtained the latest legal filings in the case made by Harry and Mirror Group Newspapers. These documents reveal how Harry’s case is likely to unfold. They tell of how “angry” Harry feels towards the newspaper group, how alleged phone-hacking made him suffer from “general paranoia” and led him to “question relationships with close friends and family”. They say that Harry found the alleged “intrusion into his life both isolating and troubling”. They reveal how he had experienced “considerable distress, and the loss of his dignity”; how he had felt “violated”; and how he was “particularly distressed because he is a very private person and the intrusion spanned every area of his life, from an extremely early age”. The Mirror Group, in its defence, dismissed some of Harry’s claims as “extremely vague” and said there was no evidence that its journalists intercepted his voicemail messages. However, regardless of the outcome of this case, filings made by Harry’s lawyers suggest that his allegations will be extensive. The damage is likely to be felt both on Fleet Street and in Buckingham Palace.

As part of his claim, Harry’s lawyers submitted as evidence 140 articles published in the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People between 1996, the year the prince turned 12, and 2010. Ahead of the trial, the Mirror Group was challenged to comment on whether these stories were the result of unlawful story-gathering techniques, including phone hacking, and to comment on whether they contained private information. In some cases, the group’s lawyers conceded that stories contained private information. But they defended the way in which information was gathered. In some cases, they said, Harry had “absurdly” complained about articles that were based on interviews the prince had given to other news outlets. Many of the stories, it said, were based on reports first published by other newspapers. In other cases, they said the reporting had relied on confidential sources and occasionally on briefings from royal households. (This, it seems, is where the case could inflict damage on the royal family.)

The 140 headlines presented to the court make for a whistle-stop tour of the prince’s teenage years and young adulthood, as told through the tabloids. “Dyslexia fears over Prince Harry,” boomed a People headline from May 1997 – its source, according to the Mirror Group’s lawyers, was “confidential”. In September 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, the Sunday Mirror reported that Charles planned to take his son on a trip to South Africa – the source, apparently, a US journalist – and that this “may dry Harry’s tears”. In April the following year the Daily Mirror reported on a meeting between Harry and the Spice Girls over tea, apparently briefed to the paper by a “Palace source”. When, in October 1998, Harry had a haircut, the Daily Mirror ran headlines of “Harry the skinhead” and “He just wanted to look like Michael Owen”. (The Mirror said that this, too, had come from a “confidential source” and that Charles’s royal household had raised no issue when contacted about the story prior to its publication.)

[See also: Have a little sympathy for Prince Harry’s hacking claims]

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After the turn of the century, much of the complained-about coverage focused on Harry’s penchant for partying. “Prince’s drug shame – Harry weeps in drug rehab,” reported one, while another headline ran: “3am – Harry’s time at the bar.” Seeking to explain the source of a March 2002 story – “Harry’s sick with kissing disease” – the Mirror’s lawyers said it was “likely that the information was discreetly released by the Palace” before a family holiday that was likely to include photo calls. From 2004 to 2009 many of the articles that Harry took issue with were focused on his relationship with Chelsy Davy: “Harry is a Chelsy fan”, “Harry snogs sexy Chels on the sea shore”, “Harry snubs gran for Xmas hol with Chelsy”, “Hooray Harry’s dumped”, etc.

Reading through the headlines, it is clear why Harry would have been upset by much of this coverage. But his lawyers must seek to prove that information was sourced unlawfully. In the prince’s particulars of claim, filed with the court, his lawyers rely on a number of phone records that show Mirror Group journalists calling the landline and mobile phones of Davy in January 2007 and January 2009, around the time of the couple’s break-up. The highlighted calls were short in duration – between zero and 14 seconds – making them “highly suspicious”, according to Harry’s legal team. In its defence, the Mirror Group denied that short calls to Davy and others mentioned in the claim were suspicious.

Harry’s claim also referenced several invoices that featured his name – “Prince Harry special,” for example – and were filed with the publisher by investigative and photographic agencies. In its defence, the group admitted that journalists for whom it was “responsible” had instructed investigators to “unlawfully obtain private information” about Harry in relation to his partying at the Chinawhite nightclub in February 2004, at a cost of £75. But the publisher said the majority of the invoices raised by Harry’s lawyers did not relate to “unlawful information gathering”.

Harry’s case relies on general information that has previously been divulged about Mirror Group hacking, most notably in the 2015 trial (after which the newspapers published an apology to victims). Harry’s lawyers wrote that, between 1996 and 2011, he had “experienced suspicious telephone and media-related activity”, including missed and hung-up calls, “on an almost daily basis”, from numbers he did not recognise. The Mirror Group, in its defence, suggested that Harry was subject to hacking by the News of the World, and possibly other newspapers, which could explain any “telephone-related activity”. It said there was no evidence its journalists had accessed Harry’s voicemails.

But even if this is the case, even if Harry loses and fails to prove any unlawful behaviour by the Mirror Group, he is likely to score some kind of victory in his battle against the tabloids. Unlike the publisher, he has little to lose. Through his book, Spare, the prince has already divulged countless personal and embarrassing details about his life, and the inner workings of the royal family. If Harry wins the case, he is demanding damages, as well as further disclosures on the scale of hacking at the Mirror Group. If he loses, the Mirror newspapers are still likely to take a reputational hit. Many of the 140 stories highlighted by Harry’s lawyers – on dyslexia, the “kissing disease” and the intimate details of his relationship with Davy – were clearly typical of tabloids at the time. But modern tastes have moved on, and the Mirror Group will face public judgement for having published them.

The Mirror newspapers have fallen a long way since that period – the Daily Mirror’s circulation has dropped from 2.3m to 275,000 since the turn of the century, and while traffic to its website is huge, it does not have the same level of influence or financial prowess. Harry, therefore, is taking on a weakened beast. He appears determined to diminish the group further. And when he’s done with the Mirror, Murdoch’s tabloids and the Mail newspapers will be next in line.

[See also: When Prince Harry fell to earth]

This article was originally published on 8 May.

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