More than a decade after the closure of the News of the World — and almost twenty years since the offences in question — newspapers have been pulled once more into court over phone-hacking claims.
But this time, executives from three newspaper groups are facing a new and potentially more implacable opponent in Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, as part of a cast of celebrities and politicians with different claims.
The claims have been made in the High Court against Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, the parent company of the Sun and defunct News of the World; Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday; and Mirror Group Newspapers, whose parent company is now known as Reach.
“Prince Harry is on a mission against what he regards to be a ‘system’ that exists in Britain between the tabloid media and the Royal Household,” said media analyst Alice Enders.
“He wishes . . . on principle to wreak as much reputational damage as possible. The money obviously doesn’t matter as much as the mission. Phone hacking has just fallen out of the public eye, and Prince Harry has brought it back to the fore.”
The civil lawsuits against the tabloid media by Prince Harry, who is expected to appear in court in June, have breathed new life into the long-running phone-hacking scandal. This first erupted in 2011 when it emerged that journalists at the News of the World had hacked the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
The subsequent outcry led to the newspaper’s closure, a public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press and a sprawling police investigation.
All the news groups are contesting claims over the use of phone hacking, arguing that some have been brought too late while others are just wrong.
NGN and MGN have admitted to previous failings and settled other claims. In essence, legal experts say that the arguments now are centred over whether claims by Prince Harry and others should have been made after allegations first emerged more than a decade ago, or whether new evidence and testimony is enough for the cases to be heard in court.
The findings so far are not uniform. On Friday, judge Sir Timothy Fancourt said in a written ruling that some allegations in the actor Hugh Grant’s lawsuit against NGN had been submitted too late but others could continue to trial.
Despite waves of phone-hacking litigation, so far there has only been one full-blown High Court trial — in 2015 — involving eight celebrities suing MGN.
The group paid out £1.2mn in damages after the High Court concluded that there was a “widespread culture of phone hacking” extending from journalists to “more senior staff”.
Hundreds of victims have launched civil lawsuits since and MGN has paid out on 600 claims.
The High Court trial against the group is the first of Prince Harry’s various legal battles with the tabloid media. In an interview this year with ITV’s Tom Bradby the royal described his campaign to change the media as his “life’s work”.
In written submissions, he said unlawful information-gathering had caused him “huge distress” and “presented very real security concerns for not only me but also everyone around me”, as well as creating “a huge amount of paranoia in my relationships”.
The case is significant because for the first time a judge has been asked to examine how far up the company the wrongdoing went. The group has long maintained that wrongdoing was not known about at senior levels.
MGN said: “Where historical wrongdoing has taken place, we have made admissions, take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly, but we will vigorously defend against allegations of wrongdoing where our journalists acted lawfully.”
King Charles’s younger son is suing Murdoch’s NGN separately. The group has admitted phone hacking took place at News of the World but not at the Sun.
Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian newspaper, which led the reporting into the News of the World phone hacking, said the cases could be “personally embarrassing” for Murdoch and his family, as well as “corporately damaging” for the media groups.
NGN said that in 2011, an unreserved apology was made to victims of voicemail interception by the News of the World. Since then, it had been paying financial damages to those with “proper claims”.
It added that “as we reach the tail-end of litigation, NGN is drawing a line under disputed matters, some of which date back more than 20 years. There are a number of disputed claims still going through the civil courts some of which seek to involve the Sun. The Sun does not accept liability or make any admissions to the allegations. Limitation is now also an issue in a number of the outstanding claims.”
Prince Harry is also alleging unlawful information gathering by Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, which denies wrongdoing and hitherto has avoided being dragged into the scandal.
Both NGN and Associated Newspapers, which declined to comment, are awaiting separate rulings on whether Prince Harry’s lawsuits will be allowed to proceed to trial.
Prince Harry is seen by media analysts as a different sort of challenger, less likely to settle for money because he wants to see what he would regard as the truth come out in court.
He is one of a number of high-profile figures bringing damages claims, including the singer Cheryl Cole, Sir Elton John and David Furnish, the actress Elizabeth Hurley and ex Liberal Democrat MP Sir Simon Hughes.
Their cases could cause fresh financial headaches for news groups already seeking to cut costs and rationalise operations.
NGN has paid out more than £1bn in settlements and legal costs covering cases so far, according to estimates from media analysts at Enders. These payments are covered by Murdoch’s US broadcaster Fox under the terms of the split of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. MGN has paid out about £100mn in damages and costs, but has made provisions for a further £50mn for these cases.
Most lawsuits have been settled by the media groups before trial. Enders said it was difficult to put a figure on the potential liability from this latest litigation, “not just because of the trial having just begun, but also because the end result depends on the number of claimants and the extent of the intrusions they each suffered”.