Not even two weeks ago, we learned that Prince Harry and several celebrities and activists are suing Associated Newspapers, the parent company of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online. The lawsuits are claiming that Mail committed “abhorrent criminal activity,” in the form of phone hacking, phone bugging, and what sounds like a lot more. The Mail was largely unscathed in the larger Leveson Inquiry a decade ago – when it came down to it, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and (non-Murdoch-owned) the Daily Mirror were found to be two of the biggest phone hackers. But it was widely assumed that the practices uncovered by the Leveson Inquiry are widespread throughout the British tabloid media, including the Mail.
What’s interesting about Harry’s lawsuit and the other lawsuits is how little energy the British media has towards discussing any of them. It’s been two weeks, and the Mail is rattling on about Meghan’s podcast and the tabloids are crying about The Crown. They clearly don’t want to talk about Harry’s lawsuit and what it means. So it’s left to the American media to discuss what’s happening. Vanity Fair did a fascinating piece this week about it – you can read the full piece here. Some highlights:
All of this is happening at the same time: In a separate but adjacent story, The Guardian reported that Murdoch’s Sun faces another eight phone-hacking cases that are “working their way through the legal system.” Originally, phone-hacking revelations focused on Murdoch’s News of the World, which was shut down in 2011. (The following year came the findings of the Leveson Inquiry into British press practices; a long-awaited second installment of the inquiry, examining the relationship between British journalists and the police, was scuttled by Theresa May’s government in 2018, with widespread support from the newspapers.) The scandal, as many expected, did not remain confined to News of the World. Litigation eventually spread to The Sun, which has steadfastly denied phone hacking while still settling lawsuits alleging the practice. (Between News of the World and The Sun, Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, a British division within News Corp, has paid out hundreds of millions of pounds to a veritable army of litigants.) Meanwhile, outside of Murdoch-world, the parent company of the Daily Mirror has been hit with dozens of claims as well.
Harry’s lawsuit is so significant: “Other than the cancellation of part two of the Leveson Inquiry, this is the most significant development,” said Evan Harris, a former MP and campaigner for press accountability, who settled his own phone-hacking claim against Murdoch’s UK newspaper division earlier this year. “It is significant because the Mail has always said that it was not involved [in criminal behavior], and its executives in fact said so under oath at the Leveson Inquiry. That’s one of the many reasons why the stakes are very high. This is a very powerful media group, even more powerful than the Murdoch press, and it goes to the question of whether the Leveson Inquiry was misled or wrongly informed.”
A rumor: The one rumor I intercepted from a knowledgeable source in the UK is that “a couple of ex-private investigators have come forward with strong statements.” [The law firm] Hamlins didn’t have anything for me when I reached out. But sources who know how this works told me the specifics of the lawsuits won’t be made public until the plaintiffs file their “particulars of claim,” and they have two weeks to do so from the date the claims were filed on October 6. (Mark your calendar for this Thursday, October 20.) You may, however, find some clues in the writings of Graham Johnson, a former Sunday Mirror investigations editor who blew the whistle in 2014 on his own use of the dark arts. Johnson was convicted of phone hacking and is now part of a crowdfunded journalism platform called Byline Investigates and the affiliated expose.news, which have published dozens of articles over the past five years about alleged wrongdoing at the Mail and Mail on Sunday.
What happens next: Associated Newspapers could ask the court to dismiss the case—a “strike out,” in the British legal parlance—which would require a hearing to determine the legitimacy of the claims and whether they have a chance of succeeding. Otherwise, the company would either have to settle or go to trial, in which case a protracted legal battle may lie in store. As Jim Waterson, The Guardian’s media editor, noted in his own analysis of the case, “The bigger worry for the Mail is that, if any of the claims are successful, it could open the door for other cases against the newspaper that could leave it in legal limbo for years.”
Harry’s name is going to make this story worldwide news: “One of the reasons why this moment may seem like a sudden revelation is that it’s always taken something really exceptional to force broadcast media to mention any of these press-ethics issues, and this was a lead item on ITV and BBC News when it broke, which is remarkable,” said Brian Cathcart, a Kingston University journalism professor and former executive director of Hacked Off who gave testimony at the Leveson Inquiry. “It’s a big milestone.” I asked Cathcart if he thinks the Mail will face further litigation beyond this high-profile initial group. “Others will follow,” he said. “I think we’re looking at the thin end of the wedge.”
[From Vanity Fair]
VF also points out that the small and informal group of media-watchdogs and press ethicists in the UK have always believed that “the rot ran deeper than a single misbehaving tabloid, and the Mail in particular has long been on their radar.” I agree – while I think the phone hacking/bugging is incredibly significant, there’s something much more insidious going on, especially at the Mail. For years now, I’ve been suspicious of who they put on their payroll and how they pay/bribe for information, how they “get” interviews and such. In my humble opinion, the Mail often runs as a very sophisticated blackmail operation. Anyway, I also believe that something shifted for Harry in particular over the past year, maybe it was the Mail lying about his security fight, maybe it was understanding the depths and depravity of his family’s “invisible contract,” I don’t know. But he’s geared up for this fight.
Photos courtesy of Backgrid.
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