Shortcuts / 08 June 2023

Prince Harry v the British tabloids

You might have seen headlines about Prince Harry heading to court in what’s quite an unprecedented move for a member of the British royal family. He and more than 100 others are suing the British tabloids over their alleged unethical behaviour including phone hacking. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll unpack why Harry is bringing this case, what the allegations against the papers are, and what’s coming next.

So it’s pretty rare for royals to go to court?
Super rare. One fun fact that’s been going around is that the last time a senior royal was in court was over 130 years ago. In that case, the royal was Prince Albert Edward (who went on to become King Edward VII), Harry’s great-great-great grandfather.

What was that case about?
It was actually a cheating scandal in a game of cards… Prince Edward wasn’t the accused but he was said to have had a terrible time in the witness box. The royal family and being cross-examined by lawyers don’t mix, which is one reason why the family has avoided it for the last 130 years.

Okay, so Harry is breaking with royal tradition… again. Why?
It’s a big reputational risk for him, reputationally – but he has a strong motivation…

And what is that?
To put it simply: he really hates the British tabloids. Of course, his mother, Princess Diana, died in a car crash after being pursued by paparazzi, and Harry blames her death on the press. He says the tabloids have been awful to his wife, Meghan Markle, and he’s made it clear that he wants to protect her from the treatment his mother received. And Harry himself has been a victim of the press – in this current case, he says the paranoia from having his life invaded has impacted his personal relationships.

So that’s why he’s suing in this case?
Absolutely – but before we get into the ins and outs of the current case, there’s a really important bit of context to know…

What’s that?
You need to know about the News of the World phone hacking scandal, which exploded in 2010 and 2011.

That rings a bell…
It was huge news at the time. The now-defunct News of the World newspaper, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was exposed for using illegal means to gather stories. In the most high-profile case of wrongdoing, they hacked into the voicemails of a girl who’d been abducted and murdered.

There was a huge fallout, and News of the World – which was Britain’s biggest newspaper at the time – was forced to shut down over the scandal. Several editors and reporters pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and others were found guilty at trial.

So it was a big deal. What does it have to do with Prince Harry?
The scandal exposed the unethical means that the British tabloids were using to gather stories, and members of the royal family were among those being targeted. A News of the World editor said he hacked Prince Harry’s phone 9 times.

So Harry’s suing over the News of the World hacking?
He is – but that’s not the case he was in court for this week.

What was this week’s case about, then?
Prince Harry is actually suing multiple newspapers alleging similar unethical behaviour, and the case this week is against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). They publish The Mirror tabloid. But it’s not just Prince Harry suing them…

Who else is involved?
A group of roughly 100 high-profile people have banded together to sue MGN over alleged unethical practices. But not all of those celebrities are going to court. Instead, 4 ‘representative’ cases have been chosen to test the merits of the lawsuit, and Prince Harry’s allegations form one of those cases.

What exactly is he alleging?
Specifically, Harry alleges his phone was hacked by the tabloids for about 15 years, between 1996 to around 2010, and that the paper had private investigators follow him around.

Why does he think that?
Harry has 147 newspaper stories he claims include information that could only have been obtained illegally, and those stories really cover a huge range of personal details. There’s a story about a 12yo Harry taking the divorce of his parents badly, and stories about sporting injuries while he was in high school. There are stories about Harry’s drug use and partying, and a whole lot of stories with very personal details about his relationship with ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy. Harry says the public scrutiny contributed to the breakdown of that relationship, and that all of these personal stories were obtained through dodgy means.

How is MGN responding?
Interestingly, the nuance here is that MGN has actually said that it used phone hacking in the past and admitted to one time it illegally obtained information about Prince Harry. But they’re denying that’s how they got the information in the 147 stories that Prince Harry brought to court.

So they’re testing that dispute in court?
Exactly. And this week, Harry appeared in court and gave 8 hours of evidence.

Gimme the brief rundown…
Harry said the British tabloids have blood on their hands and that he had been a victim of unethical journalism at an “industrial scale”. He appeared to become emotional after he had finished giving evidence, saying that the 8 hours of testimony had been “a lot”.

What did MGN say?
Its lawyer has been trying to discredit Harry at any opportunity and prove that he had no hard evidence over his hacking claims. At one point the MGN lawyer put it to the Prince that he was in the “realms of total speculation”.

What happens now?
The court will hear evidence for a few more weeks before we get an outcome. They’ll also be hearing from a former royal reporter at The Mirror.

And what about the other cases?
So Harry’s case against Murdoch’s empire – now called News Group Newspapers – is ongoing. He’s also suing Associated Press, who are the publishers of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday for “abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy”. Both groups deny the allegations of wrongdoing. But these cases are part of what Prince Harry calls his “life’s work” – ”of changing the media landscape in the UK”.

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