LONDON - Saying that he has experienced “hostility from the press since I was born,” Prince Harry became the first high-ranking British royal in more than a century to testify in court - and be cross-examined - as part of his lawsuit alleging that journalists used private investigators and “illegal means,” including phone hacking, to dig up dirt on him to publish for profit.
Harry has lately lived in a soft-focus world, sitting with friendly interviewers - like Oprah, literally a friend - who ask performative questions under the close watch of the his vigilant PR team. In fact, Harry and his wife Meghan’s six-hour Netflix documentary was self-produced by the royal couple.
Tuesday’s court session opened the prince’s version of events to hard-edged scrutiny.
“The mere fact that someone has interest in you doesn’t mean they used unlawful measures,” said Andrew Green, a lawyer representing the publisher of the Daily Mirror and two sister publications.
Harry claims that certain personal information - his location at an Australian surf beach, his travel plans in Africa, his broken thumb - could have only ended up in news stories through illegal snooping. His lawyers submitted 148 newspaper articles, dating from 1996 (when Harry was 11 years old) to 2010. In testimony over two days, the prince is talking through 33 of them.
The drama on Tuesday unfolded in Court 15 in the Rolls Building at London’s High Court - possibly the least dramatic setting possible for such a historic occasion. The ceilings are low, the lights fluorescent, the furniture is modern particle board.
The prince, dressed in a dark blue suit with a dark blue tie, sat behind a computer screen allowing him review the articles about which he was complaining. He appeared neither very defensive nor very assertive, but answered questions with repeated claims of hacking - for which his side has not yet shown direct evidence.
Green treated him with respect but kept scoring points.
“Aren’t we in the realm of total speculation?” he asked Harry. “You’d have to ask the journalist who wrote it,” the prince said. To which Green retorted: “But you are the one bringing the claim.”
The lawyer’s questions focused again and again on whether the articles about Harry would have required any illegal sourcing methods. Green argued that many scoops were not really scoops, but were in the public domain, sometimes already reported by competitor publications, often supported by spokespeople from the palace. Other information, he suggested, could reasonably have come from chatty sources.
Regarding a 1996 piece suggesting the prince was taking his parents’ divorce badly, Green asked Harry whether he was aware that his mother, Princess Diana, was already discussing with the press her children’s feelings about the divorce, and so this kind of information already was being freely circulated, some of it sourced to his mother.
Green then quizzed Harry about an article on him and his brother going rock climbing instead of attending the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday celebration. The lawyer pointed out that two days earlier, Buckingham Palace had confirmed that the boys would be absent from the celebration. “There was no need for hacking, as the information had already been published,” Green said.
For a story about a lunch Harry hosted for friends at a gastro pub, the Mirror’s lawyer noted that the restaurant was owned by a celebrity chef with two television programs who freely gave interviews. Isn’t it possible that journalists would have learned of the event from legitimate sources? “I haven’t worked in kitchens,” Harry said, getting a rare laugh.
In questioning Harry, the Mirror lawyer suggested there must have been many routes for information to be shared about the young royal. The prince conceded, “I’m paranoid of the people around me,” fearful that they will divulge details to the press.
In his witness statement, Harry described a steady campaign of tabloid harassment, which he said has caused him distress throughout his life.
He blamed the papers for his youthful indiscretions: “As a teenager and in my early 20s, I ended up feeling as though I was playing up to a lot of the headlines and stereotypes that they wanted to pin on me mainly because I thought that, if they are printing this rubbish about me and people were believing it, I may as well ‘do the crime,’ so to speak.”
He said tabloid stories destroyed his romantic relationships and sowed seeds of distrust between him and his brother. He said he came to fear that anyone he encountered in public might wish him harm because they believed the tabloids’ “alternative and distorted version of me and my life.”
He said he and his wife moved to California “due to the constant intrusion, inciting of hatred and harassment by the tabloid press into every aspect of our private lives, which had a devastating impact on our mental health and well-being.” He added, “We were also very concerned for the security and safety of our son.”
He claims that along with being unnecessarily intrusive, the tabloids acted illegally, including by exploiting a technological loophole that enabled access to voicemail messages. He said he recalled wondering why some messages he heard for the first time didn’t indicate that they were new - and only realized in retrospect that someone may have gotten to those messages first.
MGN - the publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People tabloids - denies the allegations of illegal sourcing methods and asserts that the claims have been brought too late.
On Monday, Green told the judge: “There’s no evidence to support a finding that any mobile phone owned or used by the Duke of Sussex was hacked. Zilch, zero, nil, de nada, niente, nothing.”
The Duke of Sussex, son of King Charles III and fifth in line to the throne, is the first high-ranking British royal to appear on the stand since 1891, when Edward VII, then Prince of Wales and later king, appeared as a witness (not a claimant, as Harry is) in a case involving alleged cheating during a game of cards. The “Royal Baccarat Scandal,” as the affair was called, gripped the nation with claims of betrayal in the aristocracy.
Traditionally, the royal family, including Harry’s father, brother and stepmother, have followed the guidance of “never explain, never complain” when facing embarrassing revelations in the press. Or at least settle out-of-court.
Harry has broken that tradition - in the service of his declared mission to change tabloid culture.
Matt Walsh, head of the journalism school at Cardiff University in Wales, said the prince has, in a sense, insulated himself from possible embarrassment in court, “because he’s owned up to so many of the stories already,” especially his memoir, in which he discussed losing his virginity behind a pub, taking illegal drugs and facing mental health challenges.
Harry’s case against the Mirror is one of four that this judge has selected as tests. If successful, the cases would help the court set the level of damages for similar claims.
Harry is also a party to lawsuits involving allegations of phone hacking and other privacy invasions by two additional media companies: Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, publisher of the Sun, and Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. Both media groups deny the allegations.
Defenders of the tabloids and press freedom say that the royal family is fair game and that stories about them satisfy public interests and right to know about the monarchy, even unsavory realities.
Critics of Harry and Meghan say the couple have profited from revealing intimate details of life in the House of Windsor in their many interviews, in a six-hour, self-produced Netflix series and in Harry’s blockbuster memoir.