Prince Harry’s lawyers are seeking to tie Piers Morgan to phone hacking after years of hostile commentary by the former newspaper editor about the duke and his wife, Meghan Markle.
The Duke of Sussex has pronounced it his life’s work to transform British media through high-profile lawsuits, including three that are based on historical allegations of criminality by sections of the tabloid press.
In one of those cases Harry has in his sights one of his most vocal and vociferous critics, a man who chose a dispute over Meghan’s account to Oprah Winfrey of experiencing suicidal thoughts as the hill he would die on.
Piers Morgan triggered a record 57,121 complaints to Britain’s broadcast regulator after saying he did not believe the Duchess of Sussex. While he was eventually cleared by Ofcom, Morgan walked out of his hosting job Good Morning Britain rather than apologize.
He has blasted Meghan and Harry over privacy, nicknamed Meghan “Princess Pinocchio” and called Harry a “po-faced, sanctimonious, virtue-signaling hypocrite.”
Now it is Harry’s turn, through his lawyers, to make Morgan squirm. By his side is biographer Omid Scobie, once described by Morgan as a “deluded lickspittle.”
Scobie, co-author of Finding Freedomhas submitted a witness statement saying he heard journalists at the Daily Mirrors tell Morgan that a story had come from a voicemail message and he will testify at the High Court later in the six-week trial that began on Tuesday, May 9.
Journalism professor Tim Luckhurst, principal of South College at Durham University, told Newsweek: “Harry is going to pursue this because he’s absolutely determined. Thus the Mirrors is going to come under intense scrutiny and, if under that scrutiny it falters, it will be extremely damaging to the Mirrors and extremely damaging to the editorial team who were in charge at the time.”
That, of course, includes Morgan who was editor of the Daily Mirrors at the relevant time and was named 61 times in just one 92-page court filing outlining the case brought by Harry and his co-accusers.
However, if Harry is to achieve his aims, there are several hurdles he must overcome first, starting with winning in court.
Even if he was successful, though, it would be the publisher, Mirror Group Newspapers, who pays out rather than Morgan himself.
Prospects of Criminal Prosecution
It is worth stating that the publisher denies phone hacking and is fighting the case while Morgan has previously denied both hacking and instructing employees to hack phones. He was interviewed by police in 2015 but no prosecution followed.
If Harry wins, though, there may be calls for new criminal prosecutions of journalists. But it is far from certain whether the police and Crown Prosecution Service would be willing.
Mark Stephens, attorney at Howard Kennedy, told Newsweek: “The police have been through a criminal investigation and they chose not to prosecute anyone other than the people at News International [Rupert Murdoch’s media empire] and a lot of those people were acquitted.
“So, the background to this isn’t entirely auspicious from the claimants’ side. That said, more information has started to come out.”
A Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World was so resource intensive that officers were pulled off counterterror investigations to support it.
When the case came to court at the Old Bailey, in London, Andy Coulson, former editor of the newspaper, was convicted in 2014 but the big target, News UK boss Rebekah Brooks, was acquitted.
Not only that, but a series of additional prosecutions of journalists for corrupt payments under Operation Elveden disintegrated with some cases being dropped, others overturned on appeal, and some resulting in not guilty verdicts.
The only convictions were of journalists on other charges, or of people who had struck plea bargains covering both corrupt payments and hacking attacks.
“I think the police got themselves pretty badly burnt with the last one,” Stephens said, “and there’s not much appetite for it in the police.
“Most people believe, if it happened, it’s historical and isn’t happening anymore, so the problems have by and large gone away.”
The decision will therefore, according to Stephens, likely be that it is “not in the public interest to devote significant resources” to a new criminal investigation.
Piers Morgan’s Reputation
That leaves the reputational fallout, should MGN lose. Morgan’s fate lies in the hands of Murdoch, his current employer in his role as a host on Talk TV and columnist for The Sun.
However, he is not the only Murdoch employee in Harry’s sights—the duke has a separate lawsuit targeting The Sunwhich is owned by Murdoch.
In particular, Harry’s case mentions by name Brooks, chief executive of its publisher, News UK, and Victoria Newton, current editor of the newspaper.
Stephens said: “He may be affected. I think, though, Piers is unlikely to be touched by this particularly because the other issue is this stopped a decade ago or more—and most of the editors of that period have either retired or, like Piers, have moved on in their careers to other places.
“While he was at Good Morning Britain they might have felt compelled to take some kind of disciplinary action but absent of that I don’t think Murdoch would feel compelled to see that as a useful course because it just drew attention to his own outfit.”
Prince Harry High Court Bombshells
Harry’s allegations themselves, however, are supported by testimony from inside the Mirror Group’s publications.
A filing by his lawyer reads: “In April/May 2002 [Omid Scobie] did additional work experience on the Daily Mirrors‘s 3AM column.
“He recalled during one of those days in the office the Editor, Piers Morgan, came over to talk to someone about a story relating to Kylie Minogue and her boyfriend James Gooding. Mr Morgan asked how confident they were in the reporting, and was told that the information had come from voicemails.”
The trial has also been told about a conversation between Morgan and Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, a director of strategic communications to Tony Blair’s government between 2005 and 2007.
The filing reads: “He went out for a Chinese meal with Piers Morgan at the Labor Party Conference in September 2002 (when Mr Wegg-Prosser worked at The Guardians), and during the meal he asked Mr. Morgan how the Daily Mirrors had obtained the story about the affair between the England [soccer] manager Sven Göran-Eriksson and the television presenter Ulrika Jonsson.
“Mr Morgan asked Mr Prosser which network provider he used for his [cell] phone and then told him the default PIN for that network, and then explained that the default PIN numbers were well known and rarely changed, which is how [cell] phone messages could be accessed remotely.
“He then said, with a smile, that the story on Mr. Eriksson and Ms. Jonsson was
obtained through that method.”
However, Stephens said there may also be questions asked of Prince Harry when he gave evidence in June: “Prince Harry is clearly going to be cross-examined on whether his distaste for Piers Morgan and the tabloids is blinding him to other possibilities, and he has to show on a balance of probabilities that it was 51 percent likely that the relevant articles were sourced through or partially sourced through phone hacking.”
The trial, at the High Court, in London, continues.
Jack Royston is chief royal correspondent for Newsweek, based in London. You can find him on Twitter at @jack_royston and read his stories on Newsweek‘s The Royals Facebook page.
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