More than a decade after the closure of the News of the World — and almost 20 years since the offences in question — British newspapers have been pulled once more into court over phone-hacking claims.
But this time, executives from three newspaper groups are facing a new and potentially more implacable opponent in Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, as part of a cast of celebrities and politicians with different claims.
The claims have been made in the High Court in London against Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN), the parent company of the Sun and defunct News of the World; Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday; and Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), whose parent company is now known as Reach.
The money obviously doesn’t matter as much as the mission. Phone hacking has just fallen out of the public eye, and Prince Harry has brought it back to the fore— Media analyst Alice Enders
“Prince Harry is on a mission against what he regards to be a ‘system’ that exists in Britain between the tabloid media and the Royal Household,” said media analyst Alice Enders. “He wishes ... on principle to wreak as much reputational damage as possible. The money obviously doesn’t matter as much as the mission. Phone hacking has just fallen out of the public eye, and Prince Harry has brought it back to the fore.”
The civil lawsuits against the tabloid media by Prince Harry, who is expected to appear in court next month, have breathed new life into the long-running scandal, which first broke in 2011 when it emerged that journalists at the News of the World had hacked the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
The subsequent outcry led to the newspaper’s closure, a public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press and a sprawling police investigation. All the news groups are contesting claims over the use of phone hacking, arguing that some have been brought too late while others are just wrong.
NGN and MGN have admitted to previous failings and settled other claims. In essence, legal experts say that the arguments now are centred on whether claims by Prince Harry and others should have been made after allegations first emerged more than a decade ago, or whether new evidence and testimony are enough for the cases to be heard in court.
Despite waves of phone-hacking litigation, so far there has only been one full-blown High Court trial — in 2015 — involving eight celebrities suing MGN. The group paid out £1.2 million (€1.4 million) in damages after the High Court concluded that there was a “widespread culture of phone hacking” extending from journalists to “more senior staff”.
Hundreds of victims have since launched civil lawsuits and MGN has paid out on 600 claims.
The High Court trial against the group is the first of Prince Harry’s various legal battles with the tabloids. In an interview this year with ITV, he described his campaign to change the media as his “life’s work”.
Prince Harry is also alleging unlawful information gathering by Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, which denies wrongdoing
In written submissions, he said unlawful information-gathering had caused him “huge distress” and “presented very real security concerns for not only me but also everyone around me”, as well as creating “a huge amount of paranoia in my relationships”.
His case is significant because, for the first time, a judge has been asked to examine how far up the company the wrongdoing went. MGN has long maintained that wrongdoing was not known about at senior levels.
Prince Harry is suing Murdoch’s News Group separately.
The group has admitted phone hacking took place at News of the World but not at the Sun. It said that in 2011, an unreserved apology was made to victims of voicemail interception by the News of the World. Since then, it had been paying financial damages to those with “proper claims”.
Prince Harry is also alleging unlawful information gathering by Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, which denies wrongdoing and hitherto has avoided being dragged into the scandal.
Both News Group and Associated Newspapers, which declined to comment, are awaiting separate rulings on whether Prince Harry’s lawsuits will be allowed to proceed to trial.
News Group has paid out more than £1bn in settlements and legal costs covering cases so far— Estimates via media analysts
He is one of several high-profile figures bringing damages claims, including singer Cheryl Cole, Elton John and David Furnish, actress Elizabeth Hurley and ex-Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes.
Their cases could cause fresh financial headaches for news groups already seeking to cut costs and rationalise operations.
News Group has paid out more than £1 billion in settlements and legal costs covering cases so far, according to estimates from media analysts. These payments are covered by Murdoch’s US broadcaster Fox under the terms of the split of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. MGN has paid out about £100 million in damages and costs but has made provision for a further £50 million for these cases.
Most lawsuits have been settled by the media groups before trial. — Financial Times