As the first senior member of the British royal family to testify in court in 130 years, Prince Harry is about to take his conflict with the media to a historic new level.
He will testify in his case against the owners of the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mirror on Tuesday at London’s High Court. The prince and other others claim that Mirror Group Newspapers improperly obtained information about them by hacking phones and using other unethical practices. (The Mirror Group claimed it used records, statements made in public, and sources to fairly report on the prince.)
Harry will face off against people he has accused of going to illegal lengths to get royal scoops in the eagerly awaited clash, but it may also add further fuel to his ongoing public family conflict.
Sarah Gristwood, a historian and royal analyst, told NBC News that Prince Harry’s decision to take the witness stand was “literally historic.” “It’s been more than a century since a senior royal appeared in the witness box.”
Possibly the riskiest action in Harry’s lifelong struggle against the tabloid press is allowing himself to be cross-examined. He blames the paparazzi for his mother Princess Diana’s death in 1997 and has charged the British media with racism for harassing his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which led the couple to quit the royal life and move to America.
The experience of listening to his evidence could be unpleasant.
‘A Lot at Stake’
Already, by not being there for the first day of court hearings on Monday, the prince risked angering both the judges and the public. His lawyer, David Sherborne, said that the 38-year-old prince had just left California on Sunday night after enjoying his 2-year-old daughter Lilibet’s birthday, so it would be “tricky” for him to show up.
The judge, Timothy Fancourt, said that Harry’s absence “surprised” him, which is a pretty strong word in the world of lawyers. Andrew Green, a lawyer for Mirror Group, said it was “absolutely extraordinary” that Harry didn’t show up.
He will now be questioned nonstop for two days by a senior trial lawyer called a “King’s Counsel.” This is a big change from Harry’s carefully crafted stories in his Netflix series, his book “Spare,” and other friendly talks.
It could reveal new information about Harry and Meghan’s life as well as about his family, including King Charles III and his son Prince William, Harry’s older brother.
And that’s why his testimony is so unusual: Charles, his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, and their family members going back generations have tended to follow the “never complain, never explain” motto, trying to stay above public scandals by saying as little as possible on the record.
“You know, the family motto is ‘never complain, never explain,'” he told Anderson Cooper on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in January. “But that’s just a motto, and it doesn’t really work.”
By taking a stand this week, Harry tore up this palace playbook that has been around for decades. This is the latest time he has broken with his family and its practices.
He doesn’t seem likely to settle out of court like his brother did with Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, News Group Newspapers, according to court documents filed by Harry last month. Harry is a multimillionaire who got his money from his family. He can pay for a costly court case, and he wants to do so because he feels wronged for a long time.
In an interview on “The Late Late Show With James Corden” in February 2021, Harry said, “We all know how the British press can be, and it was ruining my mental health.”
“This is toxic,” he said, adding that the media had made things “really difficult” for the pair.
Katie Nicholl, a royal expert for NBC News, said, “If he loses his case, he will lose a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s about the money. It’s about this crusade, this goal to change the media no matter what. And I think Harry has a lot to lose if he loses, both in terms of his future and his reputation.”
The last time a top royal spoke in court was in 1891, when Prince of Wales Edward VII testified after one of his card game opponents was accused of cheating. Twenty years ago, a woman said she had an affair with him and he had to testify about it.
“Because those cases were so bad, Edward’s appearances were seen as proof of his unstable character. His mother, Queen Victoria, was horrified,” Gristwood said. She also told him that the way he looked “could be a problem.” The royal family has always been very aware that the press needs them just as much as they need the press.
The prince is probably the most well-known person to sue British newspapers over shady practices like “phone hacking,” which generally means listening to someone’s voicemails. However, he is not the first.
In 2011, when it came out that the News of the World used these ways to get stories, a scandal broke out in the U.K., which led to the closing of the newspaper.
News Group has said it’s sorry that the now-defunct newspaper was hacked.
Over the years, a lot of famous people, like actor Hugh Grant and singer Elton John, have gone to court against the press.
The prince is suing three big newspaper owners in court. He is one of more than 100 famous people suing Mirror Group Newspapers, which is owned by a company called Reach.
Reach has apologized for one time when the Mirror’s sister paper, The Sunday People, illegally asked for information about Harry, but it has rejected the other claims and said there is no proof for them.
The Mirror Group said it legally reported on the prince by using documents, public comments, and sources.
Green, the lawyer for the Mirror, said that many of the stories in question were “breathtakingly trivial,” and that reporters had used public sources and records to get information legally, except for a few times when they got information in a way that was against the law.