Prince Harry a no-show on first day of court showdown with British tabloid publisher

The judge was not happy that Harry was not present and noted that he’d previously directed the Duke of Sussex to be there for the first day of his case against the publisher of the ‘Daily Mirror’

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, leaves the High Court in London, Britain, March 28, 2023.
Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, leaves the High Court in London, Britain, March 28, 2023.HANNAH MCKAY (REUTERS)

A broken thumb, a back injury, dabbling with drugs and dating girls. No event in the life of a young Prince Harry was too trivial or private for the journalists of Mirror Group Newspapers to resist, and the demand for such scoops led to the use of illegal means to dig up the dirt, his lawyer said Monday in opening statements in his phone hacking lawsuit.

“Nothing was sacrosanct or out of bounds and there was no protection from these unlawful information-gathering methods,” attorney David Sherborne said.

Harry’s highly anticipated showdown with the publisher of the Daily Mirror in his battles with the British press was anticlimactic when the star of the show failed to turn up — to the chagrin of the judge and defense lawyer.

The Duke of Sussex was unavailable to testify that afternoon because he’d taken a flight from Los Angeles after the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Lilibet, on Sunday, Sherborne said.

“I’m a little surprised,” said Justice Timothy Fancourt, noting he had directed Harry to be in court for the first day of his case if time allowed for him to begin testifying.

Mirror Group’s lawyer, Andrew Green, said he was “deeply troubled” by Harry’s absence, adding he’d need a day and a half to cross-examine the prince.

The case against Mirror Group is the first of the prince’s several lawsuits against the media to go to trial, and one of three alleging tabloid publishers unlawfully snooped on him in their cutthroat competition for scoops on the royal family.

When he enters the witness box, Harry, 38, will be the first member of the British royal family in more than a century to testify in court. He is expected to describe his anguish and anger over being hounded by the media throughout his life, and its impact on those around him.

He has blamed paparazzi for causing the car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana, and said harassment and intrusion by the U.K. press, including allegedly racist articles, led him and his wife, Meghan, to flee to the U.S. in 2020 and leave royal life behind.

Mirror Group has admitted using a private investigator to target Harry, but only once. Sherborne said phone hacking and forms of unlawful information-gathering were carried out on such a widespread scale that this was implausible.

“The ends justify the means for the defendant,” Sherborne said.

Stories about Harry were big sellers for the newspapers, and some 2,500 articles had covered all facets of his life – from injuries at school to experimenting with marijuana and cocaine to the ups and downs with girlfriends, Sherborne said.

Mirror Group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.

But Sherborne said the judge could infer that Mirror journalists eavesdropped on voicemails and hired private eyes to report on Harry as they did on others that have been documented.

The articles at issue in the trial date back to his 12th birthday, in 1996, when the Mirror reported he felt “badly” about the divorce of his mother and father, now King Charles III.

Harry said in court documents that he suffered “huge bouts of depression and paranoia” over concerns that friends and associates were betraying him by leaking information to the newspapers. Relationships fell apart as the women in his life — and even their family members — were “dragged into the chaos.”

He says he later discovered the source wasn’t disloyal friends but aggressive journalists and the private investigators they hired to eavesdrop on voicemails and track him to locations as remote as Argentina and an island off Mozambique.

Mirror Group Newspapers said it didn’t hack Harry’s phone and its articles were based on legitimate reporting techniques. The publisher admitted and apologized for hiring a private eye to dig up dirt on one of Harry’s nights out at a bar, but the resulting 2004 article headlined “Sex on the beach with Harry” is not among the 33 in the trial.

Hacking that involved guessing or using default security codes to listen to celebrities’ cell phone voice messages was widespread at British tabloids in the early years of this century. It became an existential crisis for the industry after the revelation in 2011 that the News of the World had hacked the phone of a slain 13-year-old girl.

Owner Rupert Murdoch shut down the paper and several of his executives faced criminal trials.

Mirror Group has paid more than 100 million pounds ($125 million) to settle hundreds of unlawful information-gathering claims, and printed an apology to phone hacking victims in 2015. But it denies executives – including Piers Morgan, who was editor of the Daily Mirror editor between 1995 and 2004 — knew about hacking.

Harry’s fury at the U.K. press — and sometimes at his own royal relatives for what he sees as their collusion with the media — runs through his memoir, “Spare,” and interviews conducted by Oprah Winfrey and others. His claims will face a tough audience in court when he is cross-examined by Mirror Group’s attorney.

The opening statements marked the second phase of a trial by Harry and three others that alleged privacy violations.

In the first part, Sherborne, who represents Harry and the other claimants, including two actors from the soap opera “Coronation Street,” said the unlawful acts were “widespread and habitual” at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, and carried out on “an industrial scale.”

Two judges — including Fancourt — are in the process of deciding whether Harry’s two other phone hacking cases will proceed to trial.

Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and Associated Newspapers Ltd., which owns the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, have argued the cases should be thrown out because Harry failed to file the lawsuits within a six-year deadline of discovering the alleged wrongdoing.

Harry’s lawyer has argued that he and other claimants should be granted an exception to the time limit, because the publishers lied and deceived to hide the illegal actions.

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