For Prince Harry, Thursday, October 6 was probably a day of adrenaline and perhaps even nerves when, just over 5,400 miles away from his home in California, legal action under his name was filed at the High Court in London accusing Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, of unlawful information gathering.
The move was the result of many months of evidence preparation and careful coordination. Four other filings were made on the same day, seeing the Duke of Sussex listed as part of a wider group of six high-profile accusers including Elton John, actress Elizabeth Hurley and Dame Doreen Lawrence, campaigner and mother of murdered London teenager Stephen Lawrence. They all claim to be victims of “abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy”.
The allegations go far beyond the “phone hacking” claims that prompted the 2011 Leveson Inquiry which, for those unsure of what the practice involves, is when someone’s voicemails are unknowingly intercepted, usually because they haven’t changed the default pin code assigned by the network provider.
The latest list of alleged crimes — shared by Harry’s lawyers at the London-based Hamlins firm — includes the recording of live phone calls, placing listening devices inside people’s cars and homes, and the use of private investigators to obtain information such as medical records. If proven true, the outcome is unknown – but it is worth bearing in mind that the original phone hacking scandal prompted the closure of the News of the World.
The Mail’s publisher strenuously refutes the accusations, calling them “preposterous smears” and an attempt to drag their titles “into the phone hacking scandal concerning articles up to 30 years old”, but Prince Harry is clearly up for a fight.
I understand that the fifth-in-line to the throne is “very aware” of how long and arduous this process could be, but is prepared to go the full distance – even if that may include taking to the stand and giving testimony.
“There is a risk that this, like previous cases, could see retaliative press attacks against him and his family… but he sees a bigger cause here, one he hopes can bring positive change to the media landscape,” a source tells me. (A Sussex spokesperson and legal representative for the Duke of Sussex declined to comment.)
News of Harry’s filing would have provided uncomfortable reading for King Charles, who recently hired a former Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday editor of 25 years to head up his media team, despite having no public relations experience. While there is no suggestion or allegation that Tobyn Andreae has been involved in any unlawful activities, his long-term stint at the publisher – which potentially covers the time of a number of the alleged crimes – could still prove problematic for the monarch.
But the prince’s latest legal action won’t have been a surprise to palace courtiers. I can recall several moments in the 2010s when aides actively dissuaded Harry from taking on certain British newspapers due to potential blowback that might be felt by other Royal Family members, including Camilla, now the Queen Consort.
The relationship between the institution and Britain’s two most-read outlets was more than visible when the Mail’s chief executive Lord Rothermere and chief executive officer of News UK, which publishes The Sun and The Times, Rebekah Wade, both attended the Queen’s state funeral alongside world leaders and international royals.
Despite the risks, the Duke of Sussex clearly has no plans to slow down in his pursuit. Harry has taken on a number of publications in the past three years, including voicemail hacking cases against The Sun and Mirror owners in 2019, and more recently, libel action against Associated Newspapers relating to a Mail on Sunday article on his security arrangements.
And he’s not alone. A group of eight led by actor Hugh Grant, and including David Beckham’s father and a 7/7 London bombings survivor, is currently seeing eight claims of phone hacking against The Sun making their way through the legal system. (A spokesperson says the publisher “has always maintained phone hacking did not take place on The Sun”.)
Coverage of the duke’s latest media confrontation has been predictably light. And while the majority of journalists strive to follow appropriate laws and ethics, there is still an unwillingness amongst some to focus on our own industry’s potential wrongdoings.
Still, it may soon become impossible to ignore. While it has long been (inaccurately) reported that a forthcoming Netflix docuseries and memoir will be the source of “attacks” against Royal Family members, the reality of both projects will actually see their harshest aims taken at the British press. Hardly a surprise given the role sections of the media have played throughout his life and relationships.
But the fight, I was told earlier this year, extends far beyond Harry’s own experiences. The duke – who has previously spoken about the importance of “media freedom and objective, truthful reporting” – also hopes that his efforts will help the many ordinary people who have been targeted by newspapers over the years, often unknowingly.
“There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behaviour, because it destroys people and destroys lives.” Harry said in 2019. “We won’t and can’t believe in a world where there is no accountability for this.”
Now deep into his quest for that accountability, it seems the war is only just getting started.
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