By Michael Holden and Sam Tobin
LONDON (Reuters) -Prince Harry scored the biggest win yet in his legal war against British tabloids on Friday when London’s High Court ruled he had been a victim of phone-hacking and other unlawful acts by Mirror Group journalists with the knowledge of their editors.
King Charles’ younger son, who became the first senior British royal for 130 years to give evidence in court when he appeared at a trial in June, was awarded 140,600 pounds (around $180,700) after the judge agreed he had been targeted by journalists working for Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN).
The judge’s conclusion that the editors of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People knew about the wrongdoing vindicates Harry’s vociferous arguments that senior press figures had known about, and covered up, wrongdoing.
“Today is a great day for truth as well as accountability,” Harry, who was not at court, said in a statement read by his lawyer David Sherborne.
“My commitment to seeing this case through is based on my belief in our need and collective right to a free and honest press, and one which is properly accountable when necessary.”
The prince called for authorities to take action against those identified as having broken the law.
Since stepping down from royal duties in 2020 and moving to California with his U.S. wife Meghan, the Duke of Sussex has made it his mission to rid the British press of those he accuses of being “criminals masquerading as journalists”, especially senior executives and editors.
The ruling said among the editors who knew about the “widespread” unlawful behaviour was high-profile broadcaster Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror editor from 1996 to 2004, who has become a leading critic of Harry and Meghan.
Morgan hit back with a defiant statement of his own, saying Harry’s mission was not to reform the press but to destroy the monarchy with Meghan.
“I also want to reiterate, as I’ve consistently said, for many years now, I’ve never hacked a phone or told anybody else to hack a phone,” he told reporters outside his home. “And nobody has produced any actual evidence to prove that I did.”
Harry was one of about 100 claimants – including actors, sports stars, celebrities and people who simply had a connection to high-profile figures – who had sued MGN over claims of phone-hacking and unlawful information-gathering between 1991 and 2011.
He and three others were chosen as test cases, and the trial considered 33 articles of about 140 he alleged were the result of unlawful behaviour over 15 years from 1996.
Judge Timothy Fancourt concluded 15 stories were the result of unlawful acts, and that Harry’s phone “was only hacked to a modest extent”.
“However, it did happen on occasions from about the end of 2003 to April 2009,” Fancourt said. He awarded the prince aggravated damages because of the cover-up by senior MGN figures.
In his excoriating judgment, Fancourt concluded there had been widespread hacking and unlawful activities at MGN, such as “blagging”, or gaining information by deception, from 1996 until 2011, even carrying on while a public inquiry into illicit practices at British newspapers was taking place.
However, he said the board of the company, owned by Reach, had been kept in the dark by its former chief executive Sly Bailey and the group’s legal director.
He said they had concealed the unlawful behaviour not only from the other directors, but also parliament, a public inquiry into press standards between 2011 and 2012, shareholders and the public – and the High Court at a previous trial in 2015.
An MGN spokesperson said: “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.”
A hearing on remaining issues and legal costs will take place next month.
The MGN case is just one of four Harry is pursuing at the High Court. He has won the right to take to trial a similar phone-hacking case against Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, which he has brought with high-profile figures including singer Elton John.
Allegations of unlawful behaviour by News Corp’s News Group Newspapers, the publisher of the Sun, will also go to trial.
“I’ve been told that slaying dragons will get you burned,” Harry’s statement said. “But in light of today’s victory and the importance of doing what is needed for a free and honest press – it’s a worthwhile price to pay. The mission continues.”
(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle, Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Jon Boyle and Christina Fincher)