Prince Harry suffered a major setback in his legal war against the British tabloid press when a judge threw out his allegations that Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper The Sun hacked his phone.
The Duke of Sussex will be able to take allegations of other illegal practices to trial but the highest-profile aspects of the lawsuit related to the suggestion journalists listened in to his answerphone messages.
The phone hacking scandal closed sister title News of the World in 2011 but Murdoch-owned publisher News Group Newspapers has always maintained The Sun did not hack phones.
It has long been known the News of the World hacked Harry’s phone, and he received an apology as far back as 2006 but Harry wants to prove The Sun were doing it too, overturning the company’s public denial.
He will not now be able to do so after a judge at the High Court, in London, ruled he left it too late to bring his claim, missing a six-year window.
The judgment reads: “I am satisfied that there is no reasonable prospect of the Duke proving at trial that he did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have discovered facts that would show that he had a worthwhile claim for voicemail interception in relation to each of the News of the World and The Sun.
“He already knew that in relation to the News of the World, and he could easily have found out by making basic inquiries that he was likely to have a similar claim in relation to articles published by The Sun.”
He will be able to pursue a trial in relation to whether the newspaper’s use of private investigators broke the law.
The prince attempted to bypass the six-year limit on phone hacking lawsuits by arguing there was a “secret agreement” between the palace and the Murdoch empire in 2012 not to bring phone hacking claims until after other lawsuits had been settled.
He revealed Prince William had received a significant phone hacking settlement from the company, which he said was in return for him “going quietly,” and suggested this was evidence of the existence of the agreement.
However, the judge, Justice Timothy Fancourt, was dismissive: “The fact that Prince William did not bring a claim in 2012 does not indicate the existence of the secret agreement.
“It is clear that the Palace was very reluctant for senior members of the Royal
Family to issue proceedings and attract publicity.
“At some stage, some kind of assurance was given by NGN that it would seek to resolve matters informally later and, following advice, it appears (if the Duke’s evidence on this point is correct) that Prince William was willing to wait.”
“It demonstrates that NGN was willing to settle with Prince William rather than become embroiled in litigation, as it has with the Duke,” the judgment added.
The judge concluded that “the Duke has not provided any evidence from those in the Palace who would have been aware of a secret agreement if there was one.”
“For all the reasons that I have given, I am unable to conclude that there is a
sufficiently plausible evidential basis for the new case based on the secret
agreement to justify the grant of permission to amend at a late stage of the
proceedings,” he ruled.
Harry’s claims about other unlawful information gathering at The Sun and News of the World could also still be thrown out at trial on the grounds that they were also filed too late.
Journalists have been accused of “blagging” private information, by phoning up companies and pretending to be account holders, in order to obtain cell phone call data or bank account records.
The judge ruled there is not enough evidence currently available to determine whether Harry should have discovered he had a potential claim more than six years ago.
“Investigation into the extent of [News Group Newspapers] voicemail interception at both
newspapers might well have led to material suggesting a worthwhile claim for
different UIG [unlawful information gathering] activities, but that is not such an obvious outcome that I can regard any other conclusion at this stage as being fanciful.”
A spokesperson for News Group Newspapers (NGN) said: “The High Court has today, in a significant victory for News Group Newspapers, dismissed The Duke of Sussex’s phone hacking claims against both the News of the World and The Sun.
“As we reach the tail end of litigation, NGN is drawing a line under disputed matters, some of which date back more than 20 years ago.
“In arguing his case, the Duke of Sussex had alleged a ‘secret agreement’ existed between him/Buckingham Palace and NGN which stopped NGN from asserting that the Duke’s claim had been brought too late.
“The Judge, Mr. Justice Fancourt, found his claims in relation to the alleged ‘secret agreement’ were not plausible or credible. It is quite clear there was never any such agreement and it is only the Duke who has ever asserted there was.
“Mr Justice Fancourt then dismissed the Duke’s phone hacking claims against both the News of the World and The Sun on the grounds that the claim had been brought too late.
“This substantially reduces the scope of his legal claim. The exact nature and scope of any trial of the remainder will be the subject of further hearings.”
Update 7/27/23 6:26 a.m. EDT: This article was updated with more quotes from the ruling and reaction.
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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