The money may not be, in relative terms, very much, certainly not to Prince Harry, but the awarding of £140,600 in damages to him today will cause waves in the media industry. A High Court judge today ruled that 15 of the 33 sample articles submitted by the Duke of Sussex in this test case came about as a result of phone hacking at Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). That’s the company responsible for the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People. It is worth noting that Prince Harry was not the only claimant.
First to consider are the implications for individuals. Reports of the case have already cited Richard Wallace, who is now head of TV at News UK, and Gary Jones, now editor of the Daily Express. Both are mentioned several times in the full judgement.
Most attention is, inevitably, falling on Piers Morgan, who edited the Mirror between 1995 and 2004. Evidence in which he is mentioned includes that from David Seymor, previously group political editor of the Daily Mirror. In one example, he described Morgan playing a recording of Sir Paul McCartney singing a Beatles song on a voicemail left for former wife Heather Mills in the newsroom.
Morgan was typically robust in defence, saying:
I’ve never hacked a phone or told anybody else to hack a phone and nobody has produced any actual evidence to prove that I did.
He also emphasised he had not been called as a witness in the case by either side and had, therefore, been unable to defend himself in court.
Then there are the implications for MGN. In its coverage, the Mirror was keen to emphasise that Prince Harry had not won on 18 of the 33 counts and had been awarded less than a third of the money he was looking for. MGN said in a statement:
We welcome today’s judgment that gives the business the necessary clarity to move forward from events that took place many years ago. Where historical wrongdoing took place, we apologise unreservedly, have taken full responsibility and paid appropriate compensation.
The company may well find it harder to move on than that statement suggests.
Perhaps most important are the implications for the media and journalism as a whole. Few will read the six-page summary of the judgement, almost nobody will take on the 386 pages of the full judgement. As I said on the latest “House of Comments”, all people will hear is that the Mirror hacked Prince Harry’s phone.
Having barely recovered from the initial phone hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry, this does immense damage to journalism. This is particularly pertinent as trust is already low. The Reuter’s Institute Digital News Report 2023 found that, on average, only 40% said they trust most news most of the time. It was just 33% in the UK.
Prince Harry’s personal loathing of the media is clear and he was certainly pleased to make this a wider issue. In a statement given by his lawyer, the duke said:
This case is not just about hacking – it is about a systemic practice of unlawful and appalling behaviour, followed by cover-ups and destruction of evidence, the shocking scale of which can only be revealed through these proceedings.
We are heading into a General Election year in the UK and a presidential election in the US. The media needs to earn the trust of the public to help get through what will be fraught campaigns. Scandals like this, and there are more cases to come in early 2024, make that much harder, even if the incidents involved happened many years ago.
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