When I arrived at the Rolls Building in central London for what should have been the second day of Prince Harry’s testimony, part of a wider action brought by more than 100 claimants against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), accusing the publisher of various unlawful activities between 1991 and 2011, the prince was already in trouble. In the early morning a line of yawning print journalists – enough to later fill the press gallery in Court 15, and every seat in the overspill-welcoming Court 14 – twisted away from the court’s entrance. Their cousins in broadcast came armed. Lights, cameras, battery packs and unmarked satellite trucks sprawled over and around and away from Fetter Lane, like an army prepared for a new form of modern war, waiting menacingly for their target, the prince.
Harry was in trouble. The day before he had been due to start giving evidence to the court. Yet he did not make it to the witness box. Reports cited various reasons: his two-year-old daughter’s birthday party, transatlantic jet-lag, and the unusual travel schedule of an erstwhile royal. Mr Justice Fancourt, presiding over the case, said he was “surprised” by this. The barrister for MGN was further scandalised, and called Harry’s absence “absolutely extraordinary”.
“Extraordinary” had many applications in this context. It was extraordinary that Harry was deigning to give evidence to a British court – the last royal to do so was Prince Albert Edward, Queen Victoria’s heir, in 1891, giving testimony for 20 minutes, which “wearied him exceedingly”, about a game of baccarat.
But more extraordinary still was the larger moment this single episode was tethered to. The prince is involved in a sweeping, three-front attack on the tabloid media. There is the action against MGN, and further actions against Associated Newpapers – publishers of the Daily Mail – and Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers. Harry is simply the most prominent spear carrier – the sulking Achilles – of this epic war on media excesses such as phone hacking; it’s been reported that at least 1,845 claims involving tabloid newspapers gathering unlawful information have been settled out of court since 2009. Among those claims are one made by Prince William, who (Harry’s lawyers revealed in April) settled a phone-hacking claim against Murdoch’s media empire in 2020 for a “very large sum”.
What was on display in the Rolls Building was bigger than the prince. Here was the long, withdrawing backwash of an earlier, crueller country. Nineties and Noughties tits-out, red-carpet circus, filthy rich, greedy, horny, vulgar Britain, and all the journalistic flotsam that avidly fed on its treasured rubbish. In his claims, Harry was asking us to step back in time with him, to judge the ghostly bylines and spectral paparazzi shots of a long-vanished era. The papers’ claws were no longer as sharp as they were back then – the media had changed since the glory days of the red-tops. But Harry had not. The number one reason usually given for Harry’s war on journalism was said to be “reforming the press”. But had reform, in this case, started to look more like revenge?
“Our American readers love it,” sighed the journalist. She was looking for reasons to justify her trade. “Maybe he will say something that might affect share prices,” said another hack. “Yeah, Netflix shares.”
We were squashed into the warm overspill courtroom, opposite the empty bench where no judge would sit that day. On the side of the room was a pub television, where video of Harry’s appearance in the court next door would be streamed later. Everybody was worried that they would not be able to hear the prince give his evidence, which was, after all, the whole point of the case. An unbelievably solicitous, baritone-voiced clerk emerged and gallantly began moving chairs around to establish less thwarted viewing angles. “We are getting two more chairs,” he said. The journalists shuffled and tittered; they were irritated and there was a long day of pretending to understand the English legal system ahead of them.
Harry emerged. A smudged orange thumbprint in the corner of the screen said it had faced “hostility from the press since I was born”. The smudge’s interlocutor – its wigged nemesis – was Andrew Green KC, the Mirror Group’s barrister. Green has been described by The Legal 500, a guide to the profession’s best practitioners, as a “fearless and fearsome cross-examiner”. The prince, who left Eton with a B in A-level art and a D in geography, had to present the evidence that best proved he was a victim of phone-hacking. Accompanying him in the court were 33 sample articles from the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People, covering events in his life from 1996 until 2009. Harry had to show – using facts, or devastatingly compelling circumstantial evidence – that these newspaper articles had been written using illegal methods.
Around 30 minutes into Green’s cross-examination, two patterns were discernible. The first was physical, and concerned the evidence. There were files and boxes and headings and sections and statements and sub-paragraphs and clauses and page after page after page of evidence. Green was the maestro of them all. He smoothly sifted through each page of documentation.
But the prince grew frustrated. He talked of the “thousands, millions of articles” that had been written about his life. It was as if they were in the court with Harry now, a vast inky wave of newsprint, pushing him down, suffocating him. “You’ve got me doing a workout,” he said to Green, who seemed to be enjoying making the prince writhe on the pointed end of each request to turn another page.
The broader pattern concerned those 33 articles. Each was taken in turn, and each – whether it concerned the teenage prince’s broken thumb, or how he felt about his father’s gardener at Highgrove, or a birthday visit to a Fulham gastropub – seemed, well, trivial, given the passage of time. That was Green’s aim: to drill down into the detail, make the prince seem small, and show that these stories, which were allegedly the result of phone-hacking, had already been covered by other newspapers, or came from palace spokespeople.
The prince did not have a head for detail. For a man so obsessed with the press, who, in his witness statement, lamented its blood-stained “typing fingers”, Harry seemed to have a sparse understanding of how journalism worked. That many of these stories were simple clipping jobs, copied from other newspapers, simply had not occurred to him. Harry’s hostility – and who could honestly say it was not justified? – had led him into confusion. By midday he was reduced to falling back on his “understanding”, his “experience” and his “suspicion” about the articles. Whether this constituted compelling evidence would be for the judge to decide.
In his memoir Spare, the prince writes of journalists: “In their minds royal was synonymous with non-person. Centuries ago royal men and women were considered divine; now they were insects. What fun, to pluck their wings.” That is Harry’s take on Shakespeare: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport,” says Gloucester in King Lear. Journalists are one thing. But good barristers are quite another when it comes to plucking wings.
The trial continues.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine