Let me be clear, I don’t know if there was a “secret pact” between the royal family and News Group Newspapers (NGN) with regards to phone hacking. Neither do you. That’s the thing about secret pacts, they’re hard to verify.
Prince Harry certainly believes there was one, though. His witness statement submitted as part of a legal case he is bringing against the publisher of the Sun alleges not only that journalists at the company’s titles hacked his voicemails and targeted him with other illegal activity, but that “senior executives” came to an agreement with the royal family some time before 2012 that they would delay legal proceedings in exchange for an apology at a future date.
The royal family, Harry claims, did not want a court case. “The institution was incredibly nervous about this and wanted to avoid at all costs the sort of reputational damage that it had suffered in 1993”, when the “Tampongate” phone transcripts between Charles and Camilla leaked. That said, when the promised apology did not come, things escalated. Harry wanted an apology and in 2017 was prepared to take legal action to get it – an approach that he says was supported by both his brother William and, indeed, Queen Elizabeth.
Much has been written about the Duke of Sussex and his wife’s dedication to telling their “truth” – whether in an interview with Oprah, a Netflix documentary, or a 400-page memoir. Occasionally, the veracity of this truth has come into question. But you don’t need to take Harry’s word that the Queen was on his side: a 2018 email from her communications secretary confirmed that “Her Majesty has approved the wording” of a note to Robert Thomson of News Corporation and Rebekah Brooks of News UK “which essentially says there is increasing frustration at their lack of response and engagement and, while we’ve tried to settle without involving lawyers, we will need to reconsider our stance unless we receive a viable proposal”.
This, one would think, is pretty clear evidence that there was some serious discontent within the royal family at the behaviour of this particular news organisation.
Yet when he went ahead, Harry claims he was “summoned” to Buckingham Palace and told to drop the case. Why? According to Harry, his father undermined his and the Queen’s wishes, wanting to keep the tabloids “onside in order to smooth the way for my stepmother (and father) to be accepted by the British public as queen consort (and king respectively) when the time came”. William, we are told, got a secret settlement.
[See also: Prince Harry’s war on the Windsors]
Obviously, we only have Harry’s word for all of this. NGN has denied that a secret pact existed, and the Palace hasn’t commented. The drama, whipped up just days before the King’s coronation, has sparked renewed fury at Harry, with no end of “royal experts” lining up to decry his actions. Is this “classic Harry and Meghan”, making it all about them and trying to cause maximum embarrassment to the poor, put upon Charles?
Except, if this story is complete fabrication and there really was no resistance from Charles or anyone else in the royal family to pursuing legal action, you can’t help but wonder why this story is breaking now rather than six years ago. Clearly something was going on, if the Queen was prepared to give her blessing to potential legal action. Equally clearly, that effort stalled. If it wasn’t Charles who blocked it, who did?
At the same time, Harry’s assertion that his father wanted to keep the tabloids sweet for the sake of the succession and ensure they didn’t start taking swipes at Camilla doesn’t seem that outlandish when you look at what has happened since the death of Queen Elizabeth in September.
Remember that in 1997, 39 per cent of British people thought Charles’s relationship with Camilla would “harm the monarchy”. Polls over the last two decades consistently showed considerable disquiet at the idea of Camilla being named “Queen” – yet there has been barely a murmur of discontent at the Queen Consort taking her place at the King’s side. The tabloids have, pretty much without exception, lauded her. Compare that to their coverage of Meghan (who after months of being criticised for even thinking about attending the coronation was then suddenly slammed for not attending it), and the picture is not pretty.
You could argue, of course, that the tabloid papers might be more sympathetic to Charles and Camilla because they are not being sued by them – whereas Harry is taking action against three different publishers and is being treated with exactly the kind of wrath you’d expect. But that doesn’t exactly negate the accusation that Charles may have pressured his son to drop the lawsuit for fear of what the tabloids could do to him and his wife.
More to the point, it is evident that the royal family is capable of keeping the press onside when it chooses to make the effort. The coverage – of Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and even Andrew (who paid a multi-million pound settlement to a woman accusing him of sexual assault, which he has always denied, but whose name is rarely mentioned in the tabloids these days) – demonstrates that.
You can’t help but wonder, then, why no such effort seems to have been made for the Duke of Sussex – either now, or when he was growing up. Harry had spent his life hounded by reporters long before his choice of wife was used as an excuse for press intrusion. As a grieving teenager his every supposed transgression was gleefully seized on. He was stalked at school. His friends and girlfriends were harassed. No one seems to have cared much about his mental health, or whether this kind of persecution was warranted just to get dirt on an adolescent. In Spare he recounts how a photo of him visiting a rehab centre (“a typical part of my princely charitable work”) was turned into a “scoop” on how Charles had sent him to rehab. (From that point on, he refers to Rebekah Brooks by the anagram pseudonym “Rehabber Kooks”.) And that was before his voicemails were hacked. Why didn’t anyone intervene?
None of this proves the existence of a secret pact, nor that the Sun was involved in phone hacking (NGN maintains that it was only committed by journalists at the now defunct News of the World). But it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about why appalling and potentially illegal behaviour on the part of the tabloids was sanctioned for so long, and why perfectly reasonable efforts to pursue this matter in the courts were delayed for years. And it also suggests a double standard: a degree of protection offered to a new spouse that does not appear to have been afforded to a child.
If I were that child, I’d be pretty aggrieved.
[See also: When Prince Harry fell to earth]