LONDON – A broken thumb, a back injury, dabbling with drugs and dating girls.
No event in the life of a young Prince Harry was too trivial or private for the journalists of Mirror Group Newspapers to resist, and the demand for such scoops led to the use of illegal means to dig up dirt, his lawyer said Monday in the opening of his phone hacking lawsuit.
“Nothing was sacrosanct or out of bounds and there was no protection from these unlawful information-gathering methods,” attorney David Sherborne said.
But a defense lawyer said it would have been foolish to spy on a figure like Harry with such tight security, and he rejected allegations that Mirror Group reporters ever eavesdropped on his phone's voice messages.
"There is simply no evidence capable of supporting the finding that the Duke of Sussex was hacked, let alone on a habitual basis,” attorney Anthony Green said. “Zilch, zero, nil, nada, niente, nothing.”
Harry's highly anticipated showdown with the publisher of the Daily Mirror in his battles with the British press got off to an anticlimactic start when the star failed to show up — to the chagrin of the judge and defense lawyer.
Harry was unavailable to testify that afternoon because he’d taken a flight Sunday from Los Angeles after the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Lilibet, Sherborne said.
“I’m a little surprised,” said Justice Timothy Fancourt, noting he had directed Harry to be prepared to testify.
Green said he was “deeply troubled” by Harry’s absence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While Harry’s memoir and other recent media ventures have been an effort to reclaim his life's narrative, which had largely been shaped by the media, he will have no such control when he faces cross-examination in a courtroom full of reporters taking down every word.
Green said he plans to question the Duke for a day and a half.
Stories about Harry were big sellers for the newspapers, and some 2,500 articles had covered all facets of his life during the time period of the case — 1996 to 2011 — from injuries at school to experimenting with marijuana and cocaine to the ups and downs with girlfriends, Sherborne said.
Harry said in court documents that he suffered “huge bouts of depression and paranoia” over concerns friends and associates were betraying him by leaking information to the newspapers. Relationships fell apart as the women in his life – and even their family members – were “dragged into the chaos.”
He says he later realized 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.
Sherborne suggested that a 2003 article about row with older brother, Prince William, heir to the throne, about confronting their mother's former butler about spilling secrets, had planted the seeds of discord between the two.
“Brothers can sometimes disagree,” Sherborne said. “But once it is made public in this way and their inside feelings revealed in the way that they are, trust begins to be eroded."
Mirror Group said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince — with one exception.
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 the trial.
Sherborne, however, said phone hacking and unlawful information-gathering were carried out on such a widespread scale by Mirror Group that it was implausible it was only used once against Harry.
In the absence of concrete evidence, Sherborne said the judge to make inferences of skullduggery based on the type of information being reported, the murkiness of the sourcing, and whether the writer of an article was known to have relied on unlawful means in the past.
But Green said there was little to no evidence to support Harry's case.
Hacking that involved guessing or using default security codes to listen to celebrities’ cellphone 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.
Judges are 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.
Harry’s lawyer has argued that he should be granted an exception to the time limit, because the publishers lied and deceived to hide the illegal actions.