Explainer: Prince Harry and Elton John’s UK lawsuit

March 28, 2023 - 10:14 AM
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Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, leaves the High Court in London, Britain March 27, 2023. (Reuters/Henry Nicholls)

 Prince Harry, Elton John and five other high-profile figures are suing the publisher of the Daily Mail newspaper over allegations of phone-tapping and other privacy breaches.

As the case was heard at London’s High Court for the first time on Monday, here are some details about the case and the background of lawsuits against the British press.

What is the case about?

The claimants allege Associated Newspapers – one of Britain’s biggest newspaper publishers, whose titles include the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday – is responsible for unlawful information gathering over a period of 25 years, between 1993 and 2018.

The claimants’ lawyers say Associated Newspapers tasked private investigators with unlawfully obtaining information about the claimants and “even commissioning the breaking and entry into private property”. The publisher vehemently denies the allegations.

Harry said in his written lawsuit that he regards Associated Newspapers’ alleged conduct as “a major betrayal given promises made by the media to improve its conduct following the tragic and untimely death of his mother, Princess Diana” in 1997″.

One of the most notable claimants is Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a 1993 racist attack. The Mail championed bringing her son’s killers to justice and previously said the allegations involving her were “appalling and utterly groundless smears”.

Lawrence says in her written case that she “feels a deep sense of betrayal” over the allegations that she was targeted.

John and his husband David Furnish allege in their written case that they were targeted on behalf of the publisher by a private investigator, which “included the landline tapping of their home in Windsor”.

Associated Newspapers, which has not yet filed its written defense to the lawsuits, said in a statement that it categorically denies the allegations.

What is this week’s hearing about?

Associated Newspapers is seeking to have the cases thrown out on the basis that they were brought too late.

It says the seven claimants must have known about allegations of unlawful information gathering made several years ago, which prompted a year-long public inquiry into press standards and years of litigation against various publishers.

Associated Newspapers argues the claimants should have known they could sue more than six years ago – meaning the cases should be thrown out of court.

In Harry’s case, Associated Newspapers’ lawyers argue the prince was aware that members of staff in the royal household had their phones hacked and refer to his memoir “Spare” which referred to the closure of the News of the World in 2011.

The claimants’ lawyers say alleged unlawful information gathering was deliberately hidden by Associated Newspapers for years and they did not discover that they could bring a lawsuit until recently.

What does this mean for the press?

Litigation over allegations of unlawful information gathering has been going on for years.

The vast majority of claims being brought against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), publisher of the Daily Mirror, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN), publisher of the now-defunct News of the World and the Sun.

Harry is expected to give evidence in May at a High Court trial of his and others’ privacy claims against MGN, which was launched in 2019 at the same time as a similar lawsuit against NGN. MGN is fighting Harry’s case, which would be only the second “phone hacking” trial if it goes ahead and is not settled before it is heard.

John and Furnish, as well as actor Liz Hurley, have brought and settled lawsuits against MGN and NGN in recent years.

But these lawsuits mark the first time Associated Newspapers has been dragged into the row, which has seen hundreds of settlements in cases brought against MGN and NGN – which has always denied any liability in relation to the Sun.

The allegations made by Lawrence – whose fight for justice was long supported by the Daily Mail – will be most concerning to the publisher, which said it had “campaigned tirelessly for 25 years to obtain justice for Stephen Lawrence” when the lawsuits were announced in October.

Associated Newspapers said then that it had “the greatest respect and admiration” for Lawrence. The publisher added that it is “deeply saddening that whoever is cynically and unscrupulously orchestrating these claims” had persuaded her to believe the allegations.

—Reporting by Sam Tobin and Michael Holden;Editing by Alison Williams