by Jonathan Coad
Harry and Megan’s Netflix documentary series was inevitably going to cause uproar; especially in the British popular press which long ago decided to take against Princess Diana’s younger son and his mixed-race wife. This is despite the fact that Harry was only 12 when his mother suffered a violent death in a car crash and went on to be one of the only two living members of the Royal family to serve his nation in combat, going on to found the Invictus Games for those of his fellow comrades who lost limbs while fighting for the nation.
Harry’s combat record against Associated Newspapers, publishers of The Mail and The Mail on Sunday, is 100% to date, as is his wife. He currently has two “live” actions against Associated Newspapers.
The first concerns a Mail on Sunday article, which he claimed was “unremittingly negative”, and which alleged that Prince Harry was trying to keep his legal claim against the Home Office secret. The newspaper claims that this was merely what lawyers call a comment piece. However, Mr Justice Nicklin thought otherwise and decided that the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the article was that Prince Harry was “was responsible for attempting to mislead…the public as to the true position [about the legal proceedings]…”.
It was announced recently that Prince Harry’s legal team and Associated Newspapers have agreed a temporary pause in this claim to settle it. The paper, as always, has been bullish in defending its journalism. It has been no less bullish in defending its ethics.
Prince Harry is one of a group of individuals including Baroness Lawrence who have recently launched legal proceedings against Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Mail titles) asserting that they had been victims of both criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy.
The unlawful acts alleged include:
- The hiring of private investigators secretly to place listening devices inside cars and homes.
- The commissioning of individuals surreptitiously to listen into and record people’s telephone calls.
- The payment of police officials with corrupt links to private investigators for sensitive information.
- The impersonation of individuals to obtain medical information by deception.
- The illegal accessing of bank accounts, credit histories and financial transactions.
To quote the press release; “it is apparent to these individuals that the alleged crimes listed above represent the tip of the iceberg – and that many innocent people remain unknowing victims of similar terrible and reprehensible covert acts”.
Associated Newspapers responded with predictable outrage saying that it “vowed to contest the appalling and utterly groundless claims with the utmost vigour”. There was a similarly bellicose response to the privacy and copyright claims brought against the Mail on Sunday by the Duchess of Sussex. These are some of the judge’s comments about their defences in that case – and by inference both the paper itself and its lawyers:
‘I am satisfied that this line of defence has no sound basis in law.’
‘In some respects, the defendant’s case is legally untenable or flimsy at best …’
‘I would class the notion as fanciful.’
‘This aspect of the Defence is in my judgement entirely hopeless.’
‘I am unable to detect in these paragraphs any logical or arguably sufficient basis for disclosing any part of the Letter.’
‘The defendant’s factual and legal case on this issue seem to me to occupy the shadowland between improbability and unreality.’
At present Prince Harry and the other claimants have only issued claim forms and have yet to set out their cases in detail in what we call the particulars of claim, at which point Associated Newspapers will have to serve its defence. But should the claims be upheld it would be seismic for the newspaper group and its senior management such as Paul Dacre and most senior legal officer Elizabeth Hartley given the emphatic denials of such activity that were made to the Leveson Enquiry.
The very serious allegations made by all the claimants are still to be tested by a court, but anyone who has been unfortunate enough to take on the legal cohorts of Associated Newspapers will tell you that the brutal way in which they conduct litigation requires both deep pockets and nerves of steel.
I cannot yet comment on the viability of these claims. However, we can be sure that a staunch ex ally of Associated Newspapers in the form of Baroness Doreen Lawrence the killers of whose son were – to its credit – courageously “outed” by the Daily Mail would not lightly have commenced these proceedings without seeing credible evidence of the wrongdoing at issue. If Associated Newspapers is guilty of the wrongdoing alleged in these legal proceedings then its hypocrisy at pointing the finger at Harry and Megan is breath-taking.
Jonathan Coad is a media lawyer who has represented a range of high-profile clients