Will Prince Harry Win His Court Case—and Change the Behavior of Tabloid Newspapers?

From a Washington Post story by William Booth headlined “Will Prince Harry win his court case—and change tabloid behavior?”:

LONDON — Prince Harry was back in High Court for Day Two on the witness stand in the royal’s lawsuit against the publisher of three British tabloids. The prince appeared more animated, confident, a little combative.

The BBC concluded, “Harry didn’t crumble.” And he didn’t face any big new embarrassing revelations of the sort that have made other high-ranking British royals wary of appearing in court for more than a century.

Which doesn’t mean that he is winning. Or that this case will help in his declared mission to rein in the British tabloids.

Harry submitted to eight hours on the stand in Court 15, asserting that intrusive journalists made him “paranoid” about whether he could trust anyone around him, destroyed his relationships with girlfriends, seeded rifts within his family and made him fear for his safety.

In Harry’s words, the behavior of the tabloids has been “utterly vile.”

But Harry is not suing the newspapers for being mean or nosy or even wrong.

He is charging that they deployed “unlawful means” to get their stories, including phone hacking and “blagging” — British slang for obtaining confidential information by impersonation and deception.

Legal and PR analysts say he made a strong case that the tabloids have created distress in his life, beginning when he was a schoolboy. Even Andrew Green, the attorney for Mirror Group Newspapers — publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and glossy weekly the People — acknowledged in court the suffering caused to Harry by the media.

But Green was relentless in his questioning of Harry’s claims, asking about each of 33 articles the judge allowed to be examined: Where is the evidence of illegal means?

Neither Harry nor his lawyers have yet produced a smoking gun.

“It was highly suspicious,” Harry said repeatedly about the appearance of certain details in articles.

The prince argued that personal information — about his broken thumb, an Australian surf holiday, conversations with his then-girlfriend, Chelsy Davy — had to have come from hacking.

The Mirror’s lawyer pointed out that in many cases, the same information appeared in multiple newspapers, often before the Mirror, sourced either to a palace spokesman or “palace insiders” and “pals” and “friends.”

Dickie Arbiter, a former spokesman for Queen Elizabeth II, told The Washington Post he thought Harry’s claims had been “forensically dissected” by Green.

For all of Harry’s experience with the tabloids, the prince is “obviously very naive about how the press works,” Arbiter said. “They feed off each other.”

Arbiter said multiple people are in positions to provide information about the prince. He acknowledged that some tabloids here and abroad would pay for the information. But that isn’t inherently illegal.

“I don’t think this is going particular well for Harry,” Arbiter said.

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer in London at the law firm Howard Kennedy, disagreed.

“I think Harry has given as good as he’s got,” he said.

Stephens said the Mirror might have assumed that Harry would be a bit slow on the witness stand.

“He’s been resilient on cross-examination,” Stephens said, adding that Harry’s side is “winning some and losing some” before the judge.

Stephens noted that in a civil trial like this one — which will go for weeks more, with additional witnesses in three other test cases — the judge only needs to find that hacking was more likely than not and push the sides to settle.

For a time, illegal intelligence-gathering was known to be rife among British tabloids. Past legal proceedings have forced them to pay millions in damages and resulted in the closing of one publication, the notorious Rupert Murdoch property News of the World.

The British royals are known to have been hacking targets, too. A News of the World editor and private investigator were convicted in 2007 of illegally accessing of voice mails of aides to Harry and Prince William.

But the Mirror’s lawyer argues that there is no direct evidence that the newspaper group’s publications specifically targeted Harry.

On Wednesday, former royal reporter Jane Kerr told the court she assumed that private investigators used by the Mirror were not breaking the law but that she had not checked.

As for whether this trial will change the behavior of the tabloid press — Harry’s broader goal — media analysts say not likely.

Harry’s case focuses on articles published between 1996 and 2010. The sort of voice-mail snooping at the heart of his claims isn’t possible anymore.

Also, the over-the-top British tabloids of the 1990s have already moderated their behavior, even as interest in celebrities has exploded — and been monetized by the celebrities themselves. Social media — more cruel, more mob — has changed the landscape.

“How many of the dark arts are still being practiced by the press? It’s not clear that the evidence that has been heard thus far helps to reveal the answer,” said Matt Walsh, head of the school of journalism at Cardiff University in Wales.

The Mirror could suffer financial penalties as a result of the trial, but not enough to the shutter the publication, media analysts say.

In one of the exchanges in court, Green pressed Harry about whether the prince would be happy or disappointed to find out that his phone had never been hacked by Mirror journalists.

“That would be speculating,” Harry said.

“So you want your phone to have been hacked?” Green asked.

“No one wants to have been phone-hacked,” Harry replied.

The judge is expected to rule later this year.

William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami.

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