For two days, Prince Harry was in the witness box at London’s High Court in service of a civil suit that includes over 100 people against Mirror Group Newspapers, the owner of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, and the Sunday People. It was an historic occasion—the last senior royal to testify at the court was in 1891, and the future King Edward VII was done after about 20 minutes—so those of us following updates from the journalists inside the courtroom might have been surprised that Harry’s testimony centered largely on the distant past. He brought up stories published while his mother Princess Diana was still alive, his school days at Eton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and his relationship with Chelsy Davy, his on-and-off girlfriend from 2004 to 2010. It feels like ancient history, and even the idea of leaving a voicemail seems archaic in 2023, but the wounds of the alleged phone hacking, which became a public concern in 2011, are still raw. Ultimately, Harry’s testimony proved how many unanswered questions remain about the controversial era in journalism.

Despite sticking to the past, Harry was clearly determined to make a point when he could. During cross-examination by Andrew Green KC (King’s Counsel), the lawyer representing MGN, Harry made a comment that both illustrated his fundamental problem with the tabloid press and gave a subtle homage to his purpose in taking the stand. In response to a question about teenage drug use and whether reporting on it had a legitimate purpose, Harry said, “There’s a difference between public interest and what interests the public.” 

Whether or not Harry knew it, he was almost directly quoting the 2012 Leveson Report, the results of an inquiry led by Sir Brian Leveson into the phone hacking scandal that shuttered the Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World and brought global attention to the practices of the British tabloid press. After admissions from a private investigator and royal editor that voicemail hacking had occurred at the NoTW, Leveson was tasked with investigating the wider press culture in the UK. Over the course of over a year, Leveson heard from hundreds of owners, editors, and journalists from across the industry about their practices, including those from Mirror Newspaper Group, who discussed the period in question at the current trial.

Though Leveson recommended vast changes in the way that the UK’s press is regulated, no other organization admitted to using unlawful methods of gathering information, and ultimately few others faced consequences. Denials even came from big names like Piers Morgan, who wrote that he had heard about the practice, which he called a “little trick,” in his 2005 memoir The Insider. Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror from 1995 to 2004, part of the period covered by Harry’s claims in this suit, has denied vigorously that he knew of anyone using the tactic at his paper. At the beginning of the trial last month, MGN admitted that one story from Sunday People did use illegal methods to gain information about Harry’s activities at a nightclub, but denied any other unlawful acts.

So Harry’s testimony served to highlight the gap between those denials and the content of a handful of articles that ran in the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, and the Sunday People, which his lawyers allege contain details which only could have been acquired using illegal methods, including phone hacking. Originally Harry’s lawyers submitted 148 different articles for which they alleged illegal methods must have been used, but at the request of Judge Timothy Fancourt, they narrowed it down to 33, which were addressed in Harry’s lengthy witness statement and his cross-examination. 

Even those sympathetic to his plight might worry that Harry didn’t necessarily have solid evidence that a certain quote or detail did come from a specific voicemail. What Harry did have, however, were receipts. Throughout the last month, various invoices for the services of private investigators were entered into evidence, and in Harry’s witness statement and testimony, he connected them to specific dates and stories. He admitted that he didn’t know how each journalist acquired their information, but spoke about the details he believes he told no one other than a handful of people whose voicemails might have been hacked.

To understand why Harry’s receipts are so important, it might be helpful to look back to a cinema classic for a bit of context: Spice World (1997). Though the film follows the Spice Girls on their way to a major concert at Royal Albert Hall, there is a satirical subplot about Kevin McMaxford, a newspaper editor with a vendetta against the group played by Barry Humphries, and the private investigator he hires to dig up dirt. One team of journalists in the film, led by Alan Cumming, sticks to above-board if intrusive practices, like following the pop stars after they board a speedboat, but McMaxford’s spook Damien, played by a positively creepy Richard O’Brien, excels at spy-like and questionably legal practices, even pretending to be a doctor in a delivery room. 

It’s telling that the general playbook of British tabloid culture was so established by the late 1990s that a parody could be expected to translate in a children’s movie. Still, the relationship between McMaxford and his investigator is relevant to the point Harry is trying to elucidate. In his quest for a negative scoop, McMaxford hires Damien for his expertise without detailing the methods he should use. As a proof of concept, Damien provides photos of the editor sniffing his socks and picking his nose earlier that day. Rewatching the film as an adult, I feel confident the investigator didn’t specifically invoice for “illegal services,” and I suppose some of the things he did were in fact legal. Still, how much leeway do we give McMaxford for not explicitly asking his investigator to break the law when we know the intent was to destroy the Spice Girls?

After Harry finished his testimony on Wednesday morning and the court broke for lunch, Jane Kerr, the former royal editor of the Mirror, took the stand. According to the BBC, she discussed her use of private investigators during her years covering the royals, and the instructions she would give them to acquire phone numbers or other information in a back and forth with Harry’s lawyer David Sherborne:

“I wouldn’t have expected them to do anything illegal.”

Prince Harry’s lawyer fires back: “Did you close your eyes and ears?”

“They were people who provided you with stories,” she responds. She did not know how they obtained information, she says.

“You didn’t care,” Prince Harry’s lawyer says.

“I assumed they would do what I would do,” Kerr says, accepting that she had a duty to work within the law.

Harry spent his own testimony discussing the individual stories, but Sherborne’s line of questioning makes it clear that the case is attacking a culture so broadly accepted that it has been satirized for decades. A decade ago, the government declined to consider many of the suggestions that Leveson made in his 2012 report and even canceled a planned sequel inquiry in 2018 that was supposed to probe the relationship between the press and the police, and that inaction has left Harry without an obvious remedy, even as the tabloid went on to intensify their vitriol against him and his wife, Meghan Markle. Ultimately, this case is an early attempt at a solution for the prince and the many other victims of alleged phone hacking, and here, Harry is meant to be just one representative plaintiff who have signed on to Sherborne’s case, including celebrities like former soccer player Ian Wright and the estate of George Michael. 


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