Prince Harry has started legal proceedings against the owners of two British tabloids over accusations that they hacked his phones, Buckingham Palace confirmed Friday, opening a new front in a remarkable crusade against the British press.
Coming at the end of a 10-day royal tour of southern Africa that was lavishly covered by the British news media, Harry’s broadsides rankled some royal insiders and stunned longtime palace observers. They amounted to an unusually public rupture in an old, symbiotic relationship, one that shatters a longtime royal mantra: “Never complain, never explain.”
The legal claims address allegations that the tabloids illegally intercepted Harry’s voicemail messages, perhaps as far back as in the early 2000s, British news reports suggested.
Those accusations could potentially excavate a phone-hacking scandal of that period that touched a vast number of victims, eventually leading to the conviction of a tabloid editor, the shutdown of a popular newspaper and sweeping changes to the rules governing news coverage in Britain.
Harry’s claims were brought last week against the owners of The Sun and The Daily Mirror, according to court filings. Reach PLC, which owns The Mirror, declined to comment Friday night. A message left for Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which owns The Sun and published the News of the World, was not immediately returned.
But the claims were only one part of a combative campaign by Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, to highlight what Harry has described as the “relentless propaganda” and “continual misrepresentations” of the tabloid press.
The newspapers, he warned in an emotional 10-paragraph statement earlier this week, threatened to repeat the suffering inflicted by the tabloids’ treatment of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.
She was hounded by the paparazzi for years, especially toward the end of her marriage, and she died in 1997 in a car crash in Paris, as her driver tried to elude photographers.
“I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person,” Harry wrote this week. “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
Meghan, known as Meghan Markle when she worked as an actress, has faced an abundance of unflattering coverage, and Harry and others have accused the news media of drawing on racist attitudes about the relationship. The couple has also reportedly stewed over more straightforward criticism, like that for the 2.4 million pound (Dh10.86 million) price tag for taxpayer-funded renovations to their house.
Several days after Harry filed his phone-hacking claims last week, Meghan also issued legal proceedings against a tabloid, The Mail on Sunday. She argued that the newspaper had breached her privacy and infringed on copyright by publishing a private letter. The newspaper has denied wrongdoing.
English law dictates that the author of a letter owns its content, no matter who has it, giving the duchess a strong case, legal experts said. But newspapers have been more alarmed by her claim that the publication stepped on her privacy, an allegation that, if upheld, could become the basis for a spate of legal actions by celebrities over unwanted coverage.
The royal family has sued the press before. And the royals have long done what they can to curtail newspapers’ access to their personal lives, seeking to stymie the lacerating articles about their indulgences even as they court more admiring coverage for their weddings and tours overseas.
But the succession of rebukes that Harry and Meghan dealt the press over the past week was unusual, even by the standards of that sometimes bitter history.
For one thing, Harry objected not only to the particular articles that tabloids had written about him and his wife, but also to what he called a “long and disturbing pattern of behaviour by British tabloid media.”
“It destroys people and destroys lives,” he wrote in his statement. “Put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people. We all know this isn’t acceptable, at any level.”
The actions startled longtime royal observers not only for their bluntness, but also for the independence the couple was exercising.
Harry’s statement, published on a personal website that had nothing else on it, took even Buckingham Palace’s press office by surprise, British news reports said. It was all the more grating to some British officials because it came during the royal couple’s publicly funded tour of southern Africa, a trip that was arranged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and had — until then — drawn flattering headlines.
The couple also spurned the services of the firm that usually represents the queen in dealings with the news media, choosing one legal team for Meghan’s filings and another for Harry’s claim — a firm that has won major payouts in phone-hacking cases.
The owner of The Sun also published the now-defunct News of the World, which shuttered in the wake of revelations about its involvement in the phone-hacking scandal of the early 2000s.
But apart from the bare-bones filings, first reported by the news site Byline Investigates, there were few specifics about Harry’s legal action.
Proceedings like the one he initiated are generally the first step in a possible legal action, starting the clock on escalating measures. Usually, the proceedings are a way to give notice of complaints and demand redress before lawyers formally bring a case to court.
The phone-hacking scandal was set off when the News of the World published a story about Prince William’s medical treatment following an injury, information that observers deduced could have been unearthed only by listening to the prince’s voicemails.
Journalists used the tactic of listening to people’s voice mails to target crime victims, celebrities and politicians, creating a cloud over the British press that led to extensive litigation and lingered for years. Until Harry’s filing, though, the royal family had stayed away from the legal campaign against phone hacking.