The Duke of Sussex is due to give evidence at the high court in London on Tuesday in a joint case he, and many other alleged victims of historic phone hacking, have brought against Mirror Group Newspapers.
It is believed to be the first appearance in the witness box of a senior royal since the 19th century, although in 2002 the Princess Royal pleaded guilty to a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act, after two children were bitten in Windsor Great Park – by her dog, it should be made clear.
One of the problems is that the British legal system is run in the name of the crown, which is potentially awkward, at least in terms of maintaining the appearance of neutrality. For instance, the MGN trial is being held in the King’s Bench division of the high court, which to Prince Harry is a bit like saying “Pa’s bench”, and features a number of king’s counsels on both sides of the dispute.
So Harry will be making history as well as waves when he gives evidence. While there is much speculation about what exactly he might say, it’s a reasonably safe bet that the man who has described the British tabloid press as “the mothership of online trolling” won’t be celebrating the high journalistic standards of red-top editors and reporters.
One media personality who has been tipped to receive an unflattering mention is Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror from 1995 to 2004, already named by Harry’s lawyers as one of the senior executives who authorised obtaining private information unlawfully.
Last month Morgan responded to the suggestion that he should apologise to Harry rather like an arsonist who, when asked to put out a blaze at firework factory, reaches for his flamethrower. He wasn’t going to take lectures on privacy invasion, he explained, from “somebody who has spent the last three years ruthlessly and cynically invading the royal family’s privacy for vast commercial gain”.
The question was raised because MGN had opened the high court trial by apologising “unreservedly” to the duke for one instance of unlawful information gathering. Alas, it’s in regard to all the other alleged incidences of unlawful information gathering that Harry seeks justice. His team cited 148 articles as evidence, but only 33 are included in the trial.
The Mirror Group’s barrister, Andrew Green KC, says the publisher denies 28 of them, and has “not admitted” to the other five – that distinction may seem obscure to the layperson, but it’s on these subtly arcane points that front-rank lawyers earn their handsome remuneration. Similarly MGN’s legal team maintains that there is “no evidence, or no sufficient evidence, of voicemail interception” in any of the cases in the trial.
Harry is one of four representative claimants who have been selected from a large group of mostly celebrities with claims against MGN – the other three claimants in court are Coronation Street actors Nikki Sanderson and Michael Turner (known professionally as Michael Le Vell), and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife, Fiona Wightman, none of whom have been the subject of an Oprah television special.
That the duke will be appearing in court is against the expressed preferences of MGN. At a pretrial hearing, MGN lawyers sought to persuade the judge that Ricky Tomlinson, part of the wider group of claimants, would be a more suitable representative at the trial. To the relief of all media, except MGN, the judge decided that the most outspoken member of the royal family would get the nod over the bearded bloke in The Royle Family.
The rogue prince is not only taking on MGN, but also has lawsuits against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and against News Group Newspapers (NGN), publishers of the Sun and the News of the World, the latter of which was closed in 2011 as a result of the phone-hacking scandal.
Royals, celebrities and indeed just about everyone else who has been offered a settlement tend to avoid trials. Court is expensive and unpredictable, and it’s estimated that NGN’s phone-hacking costs up until last year were running at more than £1.2bn, of which a significant chunk has gone on paying off claimants (and thus keeping them out of the witness box). That’s NGN, not MGN – just distinguishing between the various different, but very similar, sets of publishing initials is enough to sap your NRG.
With all due respect to Michael Turner and Fiona Wightman, their courtroom testaments are unlikely to travel around the globe. But Tuesday’s arrival of the prince-on-a-mission has all the makings of a gripping scene that could perhaps form the centrepiece of any future film dramatisation of this shadowy and rather sordid story. For the sake of acronymic consistency, such a film ought to be produced by MGM.
How will Harry perform under forensic cross-examination? Mr Green will certainly make for a much more challenging inquisitor than Oprah Winfrey or Tom Bradby. Yet in a sense, this is the moment that Harry, who says it’s his “life’s work to change the British media landscape”, has been waiting for – his day in court, his reckoning with the industry that he blames for the death of his mother and demonising of his wife.
One senses that his memoir, Netflix series and various TV interviews have not fully exorcised the demons from the duke’s tormented psyche. An excess of emotion, however, isn’t necessarily an advantage in a courtroom setting. But he also possesses vital information.
Depending on how he performs and what he says, he could do a good deal of damage to the press, the royal family or himself – or, conceivably, all three.
Verdict? Hold the front page.
Harry’s battles with the tabloids
v Mirror Group Newspapers
The group lawsuit, involving various celebrities, alleges that unlawful information was gathered by or on behalf of MGN journalists between 1996 and 2011. It is alleged that MGN used at least 25 different private investigators to spy on Prince Harry over many years. MGN contests these claims and also argues that some have been brought too late. MGN denies the allegations.
v Associated Newspapers
Harry is one of seven well-known individuals, including Elizabeth Hurley and David Furnish, who are bringing cases against the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. The plaintiffs’¬ lawyers argue that the newspaper group has conducted “abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy” that involve the hiring of private investigators to place listening devices in people’s cars and homes, the obtaining of medical information through impersonation, and accessing of bank accounts through illicit means. Associated Newspapers denies the allegations.
v News Group Newspapers
Harry is suing the Sun over allegations that the newspaper illegally hacked his voicemails during the 2000s. He also claims the newspaper illegally obtained information, including medical records. As part of an application in April, Harry stated that his brother, William, the Prince of Wales, was paid a “huge sum of money” in 2020 by NGN as settlement that was part of a “secret agreement” between the publisher and the royal family. NGN denies the allegations and says there has been no such secret agreement.