By Brian Melley
The British publisher of the Daily Mirror apologized for one instance of snooping on Prince Harry but denied his other claims Wednesday, as a trial for one of Harry's phone hacking lawsuits began with the prince's lawyer accusing the newspaper of unlawfully gathering information on “an industrial scale.”
The admission that the publisher employed a private investigator for a 2004 article headlined “Sex on the beach with Harry” may only give the Duke of Sussex a taste of satisfaction, though. Since the story in question wasn't one of the nearly 150 that Harry alleges resulted from skulduggery, the disclosure may have little bearing on the verdict.
The seven-week trial that opened in London is Harry’s biggest test yet in his legal battle against the British media. He and three others, including two soap opera actors, are suing Mirror Group Newspapers for alleged misuse of private information between 1991 and 2011.
The prince wasn't in court as his attorney, David Sherborne, began his opening statement, saying unlawful acts were “widespread and habitual” by reporters and editors at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People.
“It was a flood of illegality,” Sherborne said. “But worse, this flood was being approved by senior executives, managing editors and members of the board.”
Invoices and phone records — some so old they came from obsolete Palm Pilots — showed how the news, entertainment, sports, and photo departments relied on investigators plying unscrupulous tactics.
Sherborne said that former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan was aware of the hacking and even participated. Morgan has publicly denied involvement in phone hacking.
The allegations go back to a scandal that erupted over journalists and private eyes who intercepted voicemails for scoops on members of the royal family, politicians, athletes, celebrities and even crime victims. It evolved from a low-tech hack of punching in default passwords in the early days of voicemail to using deception to gain medical records, tapping phones and bugging homes.
Publisher Mirror Group Newspapers denied that it hacked phones to intercept voicemail messages of Harry and the three others and it said they had brought their claims well past a six-year time limit.
But in court papers outlining its defense, the publisher acknowledged “some evidence of the instruction of third parties to engage in other types of UIG (unlawful information gathering)." It said that the activity “warrants compensation” but didn’t spell out what form that might take.
“MGN unreservedly apologizes for all such instances of UIG, and assures the claimants that such conduct will never be repeated,” the court papers said.
The company said its apology wasn't a tactical move to reduce damages, but was done “because such conduct should never have occurred.”
The case, the first of the duke’s three phone hacking lawsuits to go to trial, threatens to do something he said his family long feared: put a royal on the witness stand to discuss embarrassing revelations.
Harry is expected to testify in person in June, his lawyer has said. It won’t be his first time in the High Court, following his surprise appearance last month to observe most of a four-day hearing in one of his other lawsuits.
The prince has waged a war of words and torts against British newspapers in legal claims and in his best-selling memoir “Spare,” vowing to make his life’s mission reforming the media that he blames for the death of his mother, Princess Diana. She died in a car wreck in Paris in 1997 while trying to evade paparazzi.
His lawsuits could further roil family relations that have been strained since Harry and his wife, Meghan, left royal life in 2020 and moved to California after complaining about racist attitudes from the British press.
In a stunning revelation in a related case last month that dredged up an embarrassing chapter in his father's life, Harry blamed his delay in bringing suit, in part, on his family.
He asserted that he was barred from bringing a case against The Sun and other newspapers owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch because of a “secret agreement” — allegedly approved of by Queen Elizabeth II — that called for reaching a private settlement and getting an apology.
He said the deal was to spare the royal family from having to answer questions in court about “private and highly sensitive” information, Harry said in a witness statement against News Group Newspapers.
“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," he said, alluding to a transcript of a leaked recording — published in the Sunday Mirror — of an intimate conversation his father, then Prince of Wales, had with his paramour, now Queen Camilla, in which he compared himself to a tampon.
Harry said that his brother, Prince William, had quietly settled his own hacking claims with News Group for a “huge sum of money” in 2020. He also claimed his father had directed palace staff to order him to drop his litigation because it was bad for the family.
Murdoch's company denied there was a “secret agreement” and wouldn't comment on the alleged settlement. The palace hasn't responded to requests for comment.
Harry has alleged that Mirror Group reporters used illegal methods to gather material from his family and friends for 147 articles, but the trial will focus only on 33 of those.
The publisher has said the allegations are overstated and denied its reporters relied on unlawfully gathered information for almost all those articles, though it said in some instances it has merely “not admitted” allegations.
It apologized for a February 2004 article in Sunday People that described “royal romeo Prince Harry” romancing two “stunning” models at London's Chinawhite nightclub “during his boozy night out.”
The publisher said an investigator was hired to engage in unlawful activity, but it said the 75-pound ($95) fee suggested little work was done.
“MGN unreservedly apologizes and accepts that the Duke of Sussex is entitled to appropriate compensation for it,” attorney Andrew Green wrote.
In 2015, publishers of The Mirror printed a front-page apology for phone hacking and tripled its victim compensation fund to 12 million pounds ($15 million).
Mirror Group said more than 600 of some 830 claims had been settled. Of the remaining 104 active cases, 86 were brought too late to be litigated, it said in court papers.
Harry's co-claimants in the trial are Nikki Sanderson and Michael Turner, best known for their roles on “Coronation Street,” and Fiona Wightman, the former wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse.
The lawsuits were combined as a test case that could determine the outcome of hacking claims also made against Mirror Group by former Girls Aloud member Cheryl, the estate of the late singer George Michael, and former soccer player Ian Wright.