Prince Harry’s attempt to arrange a high court showdown with Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper company depends on one thing: did the prince meet a deadline to file his legal paperwork?
This week’s legal hearing at the high court in London has been full of fresh revelations about the relationship between royalty and the media. There have been claims that Prince William struck a secret phone-hacking settlement with Murdoch’s company for a “huge” sum of money; that King Charles tried to stop Harry’s legal cases so he could get favourable coverage in the Sun; and that Piers Morgan was aware Diana, Princess of Wales had been illegally targeted by his reporters.
Harry even claims that his war on the Murdoch newspaper business had the blessing of Queen Elizabeth II, his late grandmother.
But that does not necessarily mean he has a strong case in relation to this week’s hearing. The judge is looking at a much narrower issue, and he has already challenged Harry’s account.
The legal argument boils down to this: when did Prince Harry fully understand that he was potentially a victim of phone hacking? And then did he start his legal claim in time?
Murdoch’s company wants a judge to rule that the prince missed his deadline and therefore the entire case should be thrown out before going to a messy and expensive public trial.
Claimants have six years to bring a case in the civil courts, starting from the claimed wrongdoing or the moment they were aware of the alleged illegal behaviour. As Harry’s barrister David Sherborne argued, it is easy to know exactly when you were run over by a car if you want to start a legal case against the driver. It’s harder to know when you became a victim of phone hacking.
Harry alleges he only became aware of the full scale of phone hacking at the Sun and News of the World in 2019, shortly before he filed his claim.
The court heard that Harry had been relatively ignorant because did not have access to the newspapers that were reporting on phone hacking allegations in the late 2000s. The prince’s barrister said: “He was on active service in Afghanistan and they didn’t have the Guardian.”
Harry’s legal argument partly relies on the existence of a supposed secret deal between the royal household and “senior executives” at Murdoch’s company. Under the alleged deal, the royals would hold off bringing legal cases against the publisher of the Sun, in return for receiving an apology and settlement when all the other legal cases were concluded.
The challenge is that there is apparently no written copy of the deal and leading lawyers who worked with Murdoch’s business deny any knowledge of such a deal.
Sherborne, Harry’s lawyer, told the court that the focus should instead be on whether the leading Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Robert Thomson knew about it.
Emails from 2017 and 2018 released as part of the hearing suggest the queen was kept updated on the case, only for Thomson to fail to reply to one message for several months – suggesting the email had been “lost” in his inbox.
When Thomson did reply, he told the royal household that he had an “understanding” that “we would wait for the civil cases to be resolved” before acting.
Harry says he learned about the supposed secret arrangement in 2012, which Murdoch’s lawyers argue should have been the moment to bring a case and start the six-year legal countdown clock.
Mr Justice Fancourt has already raised questions about “inconsistencies” in Harry’s paperwork, and Murdoch’s company has claimed it is “fanciful” that Harry could not have started on preliminary legal claims at an earlier date.
Sherborne told the court that Harry took his time because evidence was concealed by the publisher of the Sun. The barrister said that if Murdoch’s company succeeded in blocking the trial, it would show that “crime does pay”.
A judgment on whether the case can proceed is expected in July. If Harry is successful, the full trial would take place in January 2024.