Prince Harry’s highly anticipated showdown against the publisher of the Daily Mirror kicked off Monday without him present in court — and the judge was not happy.
Harry’s lawyer said the Duke of Sussex would be unavailable to testify following opening statements because he’d taken a flight from Los Angeles after the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Lilibet, on Sunday.
“I’m a little surprised,” Justice Timothy Fancourt said, noting he had directed Harry to be in court for the first day of his case.
Mirror Group Newspaper’s lawyer, Andrew Green, said he was “deeply troubled” by Harry’s absence on the trial’s opening day.
The case against Mirror Group is the first of the prince’s several lawsuits against the media to go to trial, and one of three alleging tabloid publishers unlawfully snooped on him in their cutthroat competition for scoops on the royal family.
Harry’s lawyer, David Sherborne, said phone hacking and forms of unlawful information gathering were carried out on such a widespread scale, it was implausible the publisher’s newspapers used a private investigator to dig up dirt on the prince only once, which is what they have admitted.
“The ends justify the means for the defendant,” Sherborne said.
Stories about Harry were big sellers for the newspapers, and some 2,500 articles had covered all facets of his life — from his illnesses at school to ups and downs with girlfriends, Sherborne said.
“There was no time in his life when he was safe from these activities,” Sherborne said. “Nothing was sacrosanct or out of bounds.”
Mirror Group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.
But Sherborne it was not hard to infer that Mirror journalists used the same techniques on Harry — eavesdropping on voicemails and hiring private eyes to snoop — as they did on others.
Harry had been scheduled to testify Tuesday, but his lawyer was told last week the duke should attend Monday’s proceedings in London’s High Court in case the opening statements concluded before the end of the day.
When he enters the witness box, Harry, 38, will be the first member of the British royal family in more than a century to testify in court. He is expected to describe his anguish and anger over being hounded by the media throughout his life, and its impact on those around him.
He has blamed paparazzi for causing the car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana, and said harassment and intrusion by the U.K. press, including allegedly racist articles, led him and his wife, Meghan, to flee to the U.S. in 2020 and leave royal life behind.
The articles at issue in the trial date back to his 12th birthday, in 1996, when the Mirror reported Harry was feeling “badly” about the divorce of his mother and father, now King Charles III.
Harry said in court documents that ongoing tabloid reports made him wonder whom he could trust as he feared friends and associates were betraying him by leaking information to the newspapers. His circle of friends grew smaller, and he suffered “huge bouts of depression and paranoia.” Relationships fell apart as the women in his life — and even their family members — were “dragged into the chaos.”
He says he later discovered that the source wasn’t disloyal friends but aggressive journalists and the private investigators they hired to eavesdrop on voicemails and track him to locations as remote as Argentina and an island off Mozambique.
Mirror Group Newspapers said it didn’t hack Harry’s phone and its articles were based on legitimate reporting techniques. The publisher admitted and apologized for hiring a private eye to dig up dirt on one of Harry’s nights out at a bar, but the resulting 2004 article headlined “Sex on the beach with Harry” is not among the 33 in question at trial.
Phone hacking that involved guessing or obtaining security codes to listen in on celebrities’ cell phone voice messages was widespread at British tabloids in the early years of this century. It became an existential crisis for the industry after the revelation in 2011 that the News of the World had hacked the phone of a slain 13-year-old girl.
Owner Rupert Murdoch shut down the paper and several of his executives faced criminal trials.
Mirror Group has paid more than 100 million pounds ($125 million) to settle hundreds of unlawful information-gathering claims, and printed an apology to phone hacking victims in 2015. But it denies executives – including Piers Morgan, who was editor of the Daily Mirror editor between 1995 and 2004 — knew about hacking.
Harry’s fury at the U.K. press — and sometimes at his own royal relatives for what he sees as their collusion with the media — runs through his memoir, “Spare,” and interviews conducted by Oprah Winfrey and others. His claims will face a tough audience in court when he is cross-examined by Mirror Group’s attorney.
The opening statements mark the second phase of a trial in which Harry and three others have accused the Mirror of phone hacking and unlawful information gathering.
In the first part, Sherborne, who represents Harry and the other claimants, including two actors from the soap opera “Coronation Street,” said the unlawful acts were “widespread and habitual” at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, and carried out on “an industrial scale.”
Two judges — including Fancourt — are in the process of deciding whether Harry’s two other phone hacking cases will proceed to trial.
Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and Associated Newspapers Ltd., which owns the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, have argued the cases should be thrown out because Harry failed to file the lawsuits within a six-year deadline of discovering the alleged wrongdoing.
Harry’s lawyer has argued that he and other claimants should be granted an exception to the time limit, because the publishers lied and deceived to hide the illegal actions.