LONDON — Prince Harry won his historic phone hacking lawsuit Friday against the publisher of the Daily Mirror and was awarded over 140,000 pounds ($180,000) in the first of several lawsuits against British tabloids to go to trial in his battles with the press.
Justice Timothy Fancourt in the High Court found phone hacking was “widespread and habitual” at Mirror Group Newspapers over many years and private investigators “were an integral part of the system” to gather information unlawfully on Harry and his associates. He said executives at the papers were aware of the practice and covered it up.
Fancourt found the newspapers had invaded the Duke of Sussex’s privacy by using unlawful information gathering to produce 15 of the 33 newspaper articles examined at trial as a representative sampling from nearly 150 Harry cited.
Harry said the ruling was “vindicating and affirming” and should serve as a warning to other news media that used similar practices, an overt reference to two tabloid publishers that face upcoming trials in lawsuits that make nearly identical allegations.
“Today is a great day for truth, as well as accountability,” Harry said in a statement read by his lawyer outside court. “I’ve been told that slaying dragons will get you burned. But in light of today’s victory and the importance of doing what is needed for a free and honest press, it is a worthwhile price to pay. The mission continues.”
Fancourt awarded the duke damages for the distress he suffered and a further sum for aggravated damages to “reflect the particular hurt and sense of outrage” over the fact that two directors at Trinity Mirror knew about the activity and didn’t stop it.
“Instead of doing so, they turned a blind eye to what was going on and positively concealed it,” Fancourt said. “Had the illegal conduct been stopped, the misuse of the duke’s private information would have ended much sooner.”
Harry, the estranged younger son of King Charles III, had sought 440,000 pounds ($560,000) as part of a crusade against the British media that bucked his family’s longstanding aversion to litigation and made him the first senior member of the royal family to testify in court in over a century.
His appearance in the witness box over two days in June created a spectacle as he lobbed allegations that Mirror Group Newspapers had employed journalists who eavesdropped on voicemails and hired private investigators to use deception and unlawful means to learn about him and other family members.
“I believe that phone hacking was at an industrial scale across at least three of the papers at the time,” Harry asserted in the High Court. “That is beyond any doubt.”
Harry had a tendency in his testimony “to assume that everything published was the product of voicemail interception,” which was not the case, the judge said. He said Mirror Group was “not responsible for all of the unlawful activity directed at the duke.”
Mirror Group welcomed the judgment for providing the “necessary clarity to move forward from events that took place many years ago.”
“Where historical wrongdoing took place, we apologize unreservedly, have taken full responsibility and paid appropriate compensation,” the company said in statement.
The case is the first of three lawsuits Harry has brought to court against the tabloids over allegations of phone hacking or some form of unlawful information gathering. They form the front line of attack in what he says is his life’s mission to reform the media.
Harry’s beef with the news media runs deep and is cited throughout his memoir, “Spare.” He blames paparazzi for causing the car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana, and he said intrusions by journalists led him and his wife, Meghan, to leave royal life for the U.S. in 2020.
Harry alleged that Mirror Group Newspapers used unlawful means to produce nearly 150 stories on his early life between 1996 and 2010, including his romances, injuries and alleged drug use. The reporting caused great emotional distress, he said, but was hard to prove because the newspapers destroyed records.
Of the 33 articles at the center of the trial, Mirror denied using unlawful reporting methods for 28 and made no admissions concerning the remaining five.
Fancourt previously tossed out Harry’s hacking claims against the publisher of The Sun. He is allowing Harry and actor Hugh Grant, who has similar claims, to proceed to trial on allegations that News Group Newspapers journalists used other unlawful methods to snoop on them.
Another judge recently gave Harry the go-ahead to take a similar case to trial against the publisher of the Daily Mail, rejecting the newspaper’s efforts to throw out the lawsuit.
Phone hacking by British newspapers dates back more than two decades to a time when unethical journalists used an unsophisticated method of phoning the numbers of royals, celebrities, politicians and sports stars and, when prompted to leave a message, punched in default passcodes to eavesdrop on voicemails.
The practice erupted into a full-blown scandal in 2011 when Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World was revealed to have intercepted messages of a murdered girl, relatives of deceased British soldiers and victims of a bombing. Murdoch closed the paper.
Newspapers were later found to have used more intrusive means such as phone tapping, home bugging and obtaining flight information and medical records.
Mirror Group Newspapers said it has paid more than 100 million pounds ($128 million) in other phone hacking lawsuits over the years, but denied wrongdoing in Harry’s case. It said it used legitimate reporting methods to get information on the prince.
In one instance, Mirror Group apologized “unreservedly” for hiring a private investigator for a story about Harry partying at a nightclub in February 2004. Although the article, headlined “Sex on the beach with Harry,” wasn’t among those at issue in the trial, Mirror Group said he should be compensated 500 pounds ($637).