Harry and Meghan’s fight with tabloid bosses rivals the one with royals

Unmentioned in Netflix series is how UK media figures could be dragged into legal proceedings

On the surface, there is the fight you can see. With Buckingham Palace bracing itself for a second tranche of the Harry and Meghan documentary on Thursday, Britain’s tabloid media have warned of the threat the renegade royals pose to the monarchy.

But there is a fight beyond this one – where those most in peril are not members of the Windsor family, but executives at some of Britain’s leading newspapers.

Not mentioned in the initial episodes of the Netflix series is how some of the most powerful media bosses in the UK could be dragged into a series of ongoing legal proceedings involving Prince Harry.

The king’s son is fighting four different cases against many of the same newspapers that are leading the criticism of his documentary.

If the claims make it to court then the spotlight will probably focus on senior staff such as the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, and Rebekah Brooks, the boss of Rupert Murdoch’s UK media company.

Nathan Sparkes, who runs the press regulation campaign group Hacked Off, said the royal couple appeared determined to permanently change public attitudes towards the British tabloid industry, although this is a high-risk strategy.

“For decades members of the royal family, and other well-known people, have been advised to avoid confrontation with the press,” Sparkes said. “This is a policy which has only entrenched the sense of power and impunity held at some newspapers. Harry and Meghan’s willingness to stand up to those publishers, and to seek to have their rights upheld in a court of law, shows that they are prepared to take a dramatically different approach.”

Potentially the most significant legal case is the one brought by Harry against Associated Newspapers, the parent company of the Daily Mail and its sister titles. The Duke of Sussex is one of a group of prominent individuals – including Doreen Lawrence and Elton John – whose lawyers have made a broad range of claims alleging that widespread illegality took place on behalf of the company’s journalists.

Their allegations, which are denied by Associated Newspapers, run contrary to past statements by Paul Dacre, the current editor-in-chief of the Mail’s parent company. He told the Leveson inquiry into press ethics that his newspaper group never engaged in illegal behaviour such as phone hacking, and until now his company has avoided the costly hacking-related legal cases that have dogged rival publishers for decades. The now defunct News of the World, a jewel in Rupert Murdoch’s UK empire, died a swift death because of the scandal.

The media analyst Alice Enders said the prince was using the legal tools at his disposal as “part of an enduring battle against the Daily Mail … it’s clear those people are enemy number one in that household and have been since the very beginning. Harry and Meghan have done more reputational damage [to British newspapers] in this Netflix global event than in any single lawsuit. They set off a missile from their base in LA that’s accomplished far more than any of these cases ever will.”

Yet we still don’t know exactly what Harry is accusing the Mail’s parent company of doing. His legal claim was filed at the start of October and would normally have been made available for public scrutiny by now. But despite campaigning for transparency in the court system, the Mail has successfully delayed the publication of the detailed allegations until well after the documentary’s release.

Previous reporting has focused on the Mail on Sunday’s coverage of communications relating to his relationship with ex-girlfriends Chelsy Davy and Natalie Pinkham. In 2019 a spokesperson for the newspaper told the website Expose.News it had “never knowingly” obtained information about Harry’s text messages or phone calls by any illegitimate method.

Any future court case could require Dacre – still tipped for a peerage in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours – to give testimony and face cross-examination. This could be damaging for Dacre and the newspaper’s brand. One risk would be a repeat of the News of the World’s downfall, where concerned advertisers stop paying to promote their products in the outlet.

Harry is also involved in a case against Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, the parent company of the Sun and the defunct News of the World, alleging that the company hacked his phone in the 2000s.

Although the company readily admits that voicemails on Harry’s personal mobile phone were hacked by staff at the News of the World, it insists he has waited too long to bring the claim – and denies his accusation that phone hacking also took place at the Sun.

If he is successful in pushing the case to court – and refuses to settle before trial – it could cause problems for Brooks, who was editor of the Sun for most of the 2000s.

None of this is cheap. Recent legal filings reveal how Harry is running up millions of pounds in legal fees that he could be forced to pay if his claims are unsuccessful.

A similar phone-hacking case against Mirror Group Newspapers – part of the Reach media empire, which also includes the Daily Express and the Daily Star, remains ongoing. The prince has had a partial setback in his fourth case, a libel claim against the Mail on Sunday about a story regarding his security arrangements, with both sides given until January to try to find a settlement.

“It is a tragedy that the vast majority of victims of press wrongdoing are not wealthy and do not have access to the resources available to Harry and Meghan,” Sparks said. “But if more of those in the public eye are encouraged to defend themselves as Harry and Meghan have, they will have loosened the tabloids’ grip on the privacy of everyone in the public eye.”


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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