Prince Harry: Fight not flight as he prepares to take stand

April 29, 2023  -BBC News –“Any one of the thousands of people that I met or was introduced to on any given day could easily have said: ‘You know what, you’re an idiot. I’ve read all the stories about you and now I hate you and am going to stab you’,” said Prince Harry, in a witness statement for a court case that once again threatens to rewrite what we know about the Royal Family.

His statement, in a pre-trial hearing this week about phone hacking, is a remarkably frank self-portrait that veers from being angry, outraged and obsessive to often apparently being in a state of flight or fight.

Prince Harry believed his battles with the tabloid press put him at risk from a public that had been turned against him, depicting him, in his own words, as a “thicko”, “cheat”, “underage drinker” and “irresponsible drug taker”.

We also learned that this isn’t going to go away – with Prince Harry ready to break the taboo about a royal in the witness box, by making it clear that he will give evidence in person in court, if not in this case then with others being brought against other newspaper groups.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that he has the money and the resolve to go toe-to-toe with the newspapers. And his opponents in this case – News Group Newspapers – have equally made clear that they reject his accusations and that he should have brought these claims years ago and they are out of time.

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Harry’s language, not the usual dry stuff of legal documents, illustrates his readiness to go the distance. He doesn’t just oppose the other side in this case, he labels their behaviour “utterly vile”, “disgusting, immoral and a complete abuse of power” and says they had a “devastating impact” on his mental health.

And it’s understood that his statement is a “toned down” version of the original.

Royal family on balcony

There is a political undertone that might have got lost in the royal soap opera. Harry accuses the press barons of creating a “stalemate society, where they can enrage the public over the most mundane and petty things, to distract from the critical issues for our country and communities”.

This hacking case, where he claims stories were based on illegally obtained information, hits all of Harry’s buttons. The claims are linked to his loss of his mother, his sense of grievance towards his brother, his outrage at press behaviour, fears for his family’s safety and his palpable sense of disappointment in his father for wanting to keep the tabloids “onside”.

Prince Harry is no stranger to dropping royal bombshells, but this court case against News Group Newspapers, which hasn’t even reached a trial yet, has already produced an extraordinary barrage of claims and revelations.

Much of this was about the serpentine relationship between the Royal Family and the press.

William and Harry

The most headline-grabbing revelation was that his brother Prince William had privately reached a settlement with the publishers of the Sun and the former News of the World.

The purpose of exposing this, according to the court submission and to sources close to Prince Harry, was as a way of showing evidence that the newspaper group had recently been willing to settle a hacking claim – and so they couldn’t say that Prince Harry’s legal case was too late.

But given the timing, only a few days before the Coronation, it was seen as rolling marbles under the parade, disrupting the royal narrative when it was trying to look most unified.

This was strongly rejected from those close to the US-based Prince Harry who say he’s coming to London to support his father and the revelation about Prince William’s deal was only about the hacking case and nothing to do with his relationship with his family.

Harry also would have had no control over the timetable for the court hearing.

But it shows how this strange mix of public figures and private lives can be seen from such different perspectives. And there is no mistaking a mood of brotherly distrust.

Royal commentator Tina Brown told Andrew Marr on LBC: “They are totally estranged. I do not think there will be any contact between them at the Coronation. I think that their relationship right now is on absolute ice.”

Harry and Meghan at the basketball

From sources close to Prince William, any settlement over hacking should be seen not as a secretive deal, but as a practical, private resolution of a claim, in a way that’s often encouraged by the legal system to avoid unnecessary court cases.

There’s also rejection of any implication that Prince William has a cosy relationship with the press, when he had helped unearth the risk of hacking as far back as 2005.

It might also be the case that two things can be true at the same time – that both Prince Harry and Prince William have been separately acting in good faith.

But the claim remains that a future head of state has accepted a financial arrangement with the Murdoch press, without public acknowledgement and with no explanation so far of how that money, alleged to be a “very large sum”, might have been used.

Almost as an aside there was a claim that the King’s messages might also have been intercepted and that the late Queen, his “granny”, had given Prince Harry permission to pursue his hacking case. All of this was ticking away behind the Palace walls, it’s alleged.

This court hearing also threw a very different light, from Harry’s viewpoint, on how the Palace dealt with the tabloid press, in this case News Group Newspapers, and the power relationship between them.

Any expectation of deference was blown away by the publication of some passive-aggressive emails, showing the Palace as increasingly frustrated by a lack of reply from the newspaper group.

“I do, of course, appreciate that business is busy. However, there is also an increasing sense of frustration here at the lack of response or willingness to engage in finding a resolution,” wrote a senior royal official to a boss of what was then News Corporation.

Or elsewhere from the Palace to the paper bosses: “Assuming you received my email… following our very genial and I thought constructive meeting, I was somewhat disappointed not to receive an acknowledgment, let alone a reply.”

Read the latest from our royal correspondent Sean Coughlan

These emails are also where Prince Harry’s lawyers point to evidence for what he called a “secret agreement” between royal officials and the newspaper group, in which it was claimed that royal hacking cases would be dealt with after other claims had been settled.

“My understanding was that we would wait for the civil cases to be resolved and, thankfully, we seem to be in the final phases of that process,” the newspaper group’s chief executive Robert Thomson wrote to the Queen’s director of communications Sally Osman in March 2018.

This agreement is a key part of Prince Harry’s argument that his case shouldn’t be thrown out as being out of time, as he argues that he was held back from pursuing his claim earlier, because they were waiting for other hacking cases to be concluded.

This is another case of competing versions of events.

“There was no such secret agreement,” said the lawyers for News Group Newspapers, saying such a proposition was “without merit in fact or in law”.

There might also be differences in how things are described. A “secret agreement” suggests something formal with terms that are being kept confidential.

But it might be referring to something much vaguer or a holding position that was temporarily useful as a way of parking something difficult.

Lawyers on both sides will be pushing their own interpretations at another hearing in July, and will be arguing about when Harry really knew about hacking. A judge will then decide whether the case can proceed to a full trial, possibly early next year.

If Prince Harry’s account of Buckingham Palace’s attitude is correct, he says they are “incredibly nervous” about such confrontations with the press. They don’t want to see a royal facing questions in open court – and having spent years unpicking a single Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew, that might be understandable.

It should have been a week of royal unity – with King Charles readying himself to look statesmanlike and a father of the nation at next weekend’s Coronation.

Instead he’s been caught up in family wrangles as a real-life father, in a dispute that could get even more complicated.

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