Rupert Murdoch’s media business secretly paid Prince William a “very large sum of money” to quietly settle a phone-hacking claim, according to new court filings.
The Prince of Wales received the previously undisclosed payment in 2020 after bringing a legal claim against the owner of the Sun and the News of the World.
Details of the settlement were given in legal documents submitted by his brother, Prince Harry, as part of his own legal battle with the publisher, which returns to the high court on Tuesday.
Harry told the court his attempts to seek an apology from Murdoch’s company over phone hacking were carried out with the approval of his grandmother the late Queen Elizabeth II.
The royal claims there was a secret agreement struck between royal family and “senior executives” at Murdoch’s company at some point before 2012. As part of this supposed deal the princes would delay legal proceedings against the newspaper group in return for receiving an apology at a later date.
Harry said the royal family did this after being scarred by the “Tampongate” incident when the Sun obtained a recorded phone call between Prince Charles and Camilla while the couple were having an affair in the 1980s.
Harry said the royal family was desperate to avoid a repeat of this coverage. The filings state: “The reason for this was to avoid the situation where a member of the royal family would have to sit in the witness box and recount the specific details of the private and highly sensitive voicemails that had been intercepted by [the News of the World royal reporter] Clive Goodman.
“The institution was incredibly nervous about this and wanted to avoid at all costs the sort of reputational damage that it had suffered in 1993 when the Sun and another tabloid had unlawfully obtained and published details of an intimate telephone conversation that took place between my father and stepmother in 1989, while he was still married to my mother.”
Harry says News UK failed to uphold its side of the secret agreement when he sought this apology in 2017. He claims meetings were arranged involving Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s News UK, and Robert Thomson, the global head of Murdoch’s global News Corp business, but they went nowhere.
As a result, Harry decided to launch legal proceedings against the publisher of the Sun and the News of the World. He alleges the company targeted him with widespread illegal activity for much of his life, including hacking his voicemails and illegally obtaining personal information in the name of journalism. Many of Harry’s allegations relate to claims of illegal behaviour at the Sun while Brooks was editor in the 2000s. News Group Newspapers insisted there is no secret agreement.
Although News UK has admitted phone hacking took place at the News of the World, it has always maintained no wrongdoing took place at the Sun. Brooks was found not guilty of phone hacking at a criminal trial in 2014.
A spokesperson for the company said “the Sun does not accept liability or make any admissions to the allegations”, emphasising that many of Harry’s claims dated back 20 years.
Murdoch’s media empire is fighting hard to avoid being dragged into another high-profile court case, just weeks after paying more than $700m (£560m) to settle a US defamation case against Fox News. It is trying to stop Harry’s case from going to trial, arguing that he waited too long to bring the case and should have suspected he was a phone-hacking victim at an earlier date.
Claims that Murdoch’s company privately reached a settlement with Prince William was included as part of Harry’s legal case that there were secret deals between the royal family. There are no further details about what William alleged took place and whether it related to the Sun or the now defunct News of the World, which was closed down at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. A A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said it would never comment on an ongoing legal case. Kensington Palace declined to comment.
It had long been known William and Harry had been the victims of phone hacking, after Goodman was found guilty of hacking royal voicemails at a trial in 2007. At that time Murdoch’s business said Goodman was operating alone and the newspaper had been let down by a rogue reporter.
When the Guardian revealed that in reality hacking was widespread in the News of the World newsroom, the Sunday newspaper was shut down and the scandal threatened to derail the entire company, with hundreds of victims agreeing settlement deals at a total cost of about £1bn.
Harry is now fighting three separate legal battles against three media groups, all alleging illegal activities were used to target him in the name of journalism.
Last month he turned up in person for his case against the publisher of the Daily Mail, with a judge currently considering whether that case should be allowed to go to a full trial.
A separate trial against the publisher of the Mirror and Sunday Mirror is due to start in a fortnight, with Harry set to break with royal protocol by giving evidence in the witness box.
If Harry is successful in this week’s hearing against Murdoch’s company then he is seeking damages in excess of £200,000, with a high-profile trial scheduled for January 2024.
The royal’s lawyers told the court News UK had engaged in “years of deliberate concealment, destruction of evidence, cover-up at the highest level and false denials even given under oath”.
They said: “The invasion of his personal conversations and relationships caused distress, as his privacy was constantly violated and his safety jeopardised. [Prince Harry] is appalled by the tactics used by journalists to interfere with and ruin his relationships, and feels sick knowing that these actions were conducted unlawfully.”
His lawyers said Harry was bringing the case because “crime should not be allowed to pay”.