Prince Harry claims vindication in court victory as judge finds British tabloid hacked his phone

Dec 15, 2023, 12:13 PM

FILE - Prince Harry leaves the High Court after giving evidence in London, Wednesday, June 7, 2023....

FILE - Prince Harry leaves the High Court after giving evidence in London, Wednesday, June 7, 2023. A London judge has allowed Prince Harry's lawsuit against the publisher of The Sun tabloid to go to trial on claims the newspaper used unlawful methods to gather information about him. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

(AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

LONDON (AP) — Prince Harry’s phone was hacked by journalists and private investigators working for the Daily Mirror who invaded his privacy by snooping on him unlawfully, a judge ruled Friday, delivering an historic victory for the estranged royal who broke from family tradition to take on the British press.

Phone hacking was “widespread and habitual” at Mirror Group Newspapers, and executives at the papers covered it up, Justice Timothy Fancourt said in his 386-page ruling handed down in the High Court.

The newspapers were ordered to pay the Duke of Sussex 140,000 pounds ($180,000) for using unlawful information gathering in 15 of the 33 newspaper articles examined at trial.

Harry said the ruling was “vindicating and affirming” and should serve as a warning to other news media that used similar practices, an overt reference to two tabloid publishers that face upcoming trials in lawsuits that make nearly identical allegations.

“Today is a great day for truth, as well as accountability,” Harry said in a statement read by his lawyer outside court. “I’ve been told that slaying dragons will get you burned. But in light of today’s victory and the importance of doing what is needed for a free and honest press, it is a worthwhile price to pay. The mission continues.”

Fancourt awarded the duke damages for the distress he suffered and a further sum to “reflect the particular hurt and sense of outrage” because two directors at Trinity Mirror knew about the activity and didn’t stop it.

“They turned a blind eye to what was going on and positively concealed it,” Fancourt said. “Had the illegal conduct been stopped, the misuse of the duke’s private information would have ended much sooner.”

Harry, 39, the alienated younger son of King Charles III, had sought 440,000 pounds ($560,000) as part of a crusade against the British media that bucked his family’s longstanding aversion to litigation and made him the first senior member of the royal family to testify in court in over a century.

His appearance in the witness box over two days in June created a spectacle as he lobbed allegations that Mirror Group had employed journalists who eavesdropped on voicemails and hired private investigators to use deception and unlawful means to learn about him, other family members and associates.

“I believe that phone hacking was at an industrial scale across at least three of the papers at the time,” Harry asserted in the High Court. “That is beyond any doubt.”

But Harry had little proof of his own to back his allegations.

The Mirror’s lawyer showed him examples of stories that mirrored those published previously in competing papers and even stories that had come from Buckingham Palace and, in one instance, a story from an interview the prince himself had given to mark his 18th birthday.

Harry repeatedly insisted there was no way the papers could have landed their scoops legitimately.

The judge said Harry had a tendency in his testimony “to assume that everything published was the product of voicemail interception because phone hacking was rife within Mirror Group at the time.”

Fancourt said Mirror Group was “not responsible for all of the unlawful activity directed at the duke” by the press, but found it had eavesdropped on his messages as early as 2003 and when hacking was “extensive” at the newspapers from 2006 to 2011.

Mirror Group welcomed the judgment for providing the “necessary clarity to move forward from events that took place many years ago,” Chief Executive Jim Mullen said.

“Where historical wrongdoing took place, we apologize unreservedly, have taken full responsibility and paid appropriate compensation,” Mullen said in statement.

Attorney Philippa Dempster, who wasn’t involved in the case, said hundreds of people who had articles written about them decades ago that contained private information from questionable sources may now be inspired to bring a claim against the newspapers.

“This is a landmark victory for the privacy rights of individuals and marks another clear line in the sand for press standards,” Dempster said. “It shows that the courts are willing to reach back into the past, sift through evidence and hold those who practiced the so-called ‘dark arts’ of the press to account.”

The case is the first of three lawsuits Harry has filed against the tabloids over allegations of phone hacking or some form of unlawful information gathering. They form the front line of attack in what he says is his life’s mission to reform the media.

Harry’s beef with the news media runs deep and is cited throughout his memoir, “Spare.” He blames paparazzi for causing the car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana, and he said intrusions by journalists led him and his wife, Meghan, to leave royal life for the U.S. in 2020.

Harry alleged that Mirror Group used unlawful means to produce nearly 150 stories on his early life between 1996 and 2010, including his romances, injuries and alleged drug use. The reporting caused great distress, he said in sometimes emotional testimony, but was hard to prove because the newspapers destroyed records.

Of the 33 articles at the center of the trial, Mirror denied using unlawful reporting methods for 28 and made no admissions concerning the remaining five.

Fancourt previously tossed out Harry’s hacking claims against the publisher of The Sun. He is allowing Harry and actor Hugh Grant, who has made similar claims, to proceed to trial on allegations that News Group Newspapers journalists used other unlawful methods to snoop on them.

Another judge recently gave Harry the go-ahead to take a similar case to trial against the publisher of the Daily Mail, rejecting the newspaper’s efforts to throw out the lawsuit. Harry is joined in that litigation by Elton John, actors Elizabeth Hurley, Sadie Frost and others.

Phone hacking by British newspapers dates back more than two decades to a time when unethical journalists used an unsophisticated method of phoning the numbers of royals, celebrities, politicians and sports stars and, when prompted to leave a message, punched in default passcodes to eavesdrop on voicemails.

The practice erupted into a full-blown scandal in 2011 when Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World was revealed to have intercepted messages of a murdered girl, relatives of deceased British soldiers and victims of a bombing. Murdoch closed the paper.

Newspapers were later found to have used more intrusive means such as phone tapping, home bugging and obtaining flight information and medical records.

Mirror Group Newspapers said it has paid more than 100 million pounds ($128 million) in other phone hacking lawsuits over the years, but denied wrongdoing in Harry’s case. It said it used legitimate reporting methods to get information on the prince.

At the start of the trial, Mirror Group apologized “unreservedly” for one instance when it admitted to hiring a private investigator for a story about Harry partying at a nightclub in February 2004. Although the article, headlined “Sex on the beach with Harry,” wasn’t among those at issue in the trial, Mirror Group said he should be compensated 500 pounds ($637).

Harry brought the case along with three other claimants, including two members of Britain’s longest-running TV soap opera, “Coronation Street.”

The judge found all had legitimate claims but he tossed out cases brought by actor Nikki Sanderson and Fiona Wightman, the former wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse, because they were filed too late. He awarded actor Michael Turner 31,000 pounds ($40,000).

The trial was a test case against Mirror Group and the verdict could influence the outcome of hacking claims made by the estate of the late singer George Michael, former Girls Aloud member Cheryl and former soccer player Ian Wright.

Harry’s case is also not resolved. He could receive additional compensation over the remaining 115 articles that were not examined at trial.

The judge told the parties to work out an agreement on those or they would have to go to trial again.

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Prince Harry claims vindication in court victory as judge finds British tabloid hacked his phone