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Amid the Prince Harry Circus Lies a Court Battle With The Highest Stakes

Prince Harry was there to allege that Associated Newspapers, the parent company of the Daily Mail, was similarly out of control.

He alleged its newspapers pretended to be a “beacon of truth and integrity” while in reality they “widely and habitually carried out or commissioned illegal or unlawful information-gathering activities”.

“I am bringing this claim because I love my country and I remain deeply concerned by the unchecked power, influence and criminality of Associated,” Harry wrote in a witness statement.

“The evidence I have seen shows that Associated’s journalists are criminals with journalistic powers which should concern every single one of us. The British public deserve to know the full extent of this cover-up and I feel it is my duty to expose it.”

Associated Newspapers has described the claims as “preposterous smears” – and highlighted how Harry and his co-claimants appear to be relying on testimony from a private investigator who has since retracted his statement.

The legal arguments, however, are only a part of it.

Harry’s decision to fly in from the US, entering through the front door for maximum press attention, focused global media attention on what could otherwise have been a drab four-day preliminary hearing.

The circus surrounding the royal’s arrival at the high court on the Strand in central London sometimes obscured what was actually going on in Court 76.

This was not a hearing where witnesses gave dramatic evidence under cross-examination. Instead it was a series of technical legal applications by Associated Newspapers, who are trying to stop the claims of voicemail interception, medical records blagging and the bugging of cars from reaching trial.

The stakes could not be higher.

The newspaper group is hoping to kill the case at an early stage while simultaneously discrediting the material used as the basis of Harry’s allegations.

Harry and his fellow claimants, on the other hand, aim to convince Mr Justice Nicklin to press on to trial where their allegations can be tested in open court, doubtless amid enormous publicity.

For both sides, the decision on whether the case will be allowed to go to trial is potentially as important as the eventual outcome.

Elton John arriving at the Royal Courts of Justice on Monday
Elton John arriving at the Royal Courts of Justice on Monday. Photograph: Belinda Jiao/Getty Images

As the hearing progressed Harry was joined in the room by Elton John, David Furnish, Sadie Frost and Doreen Lawrence. The actor Elizabeth Hurley and the former Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes have also brought claims but did not turn up in person. They all made clear in court documents that they had a loathing for Associated Newspapers and that they believed they were the victims of illegal activities carried out on behalf of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

David Sherborne, the barrister acting for Prince Harry and the other prominent individuals, said his clients had “compelling” new evidence of wrongdoing. Associated Newspapers say the claims are “appalling and utterly groundless.”

There is little doubt, though, that Associated Newspapers is deeply worried by the case, with senior staff working flat out on it for months.

It is also taking a keen interest in the coverage from rival outlets: the Mail’s press officers have been phoning reporters covering this week’s hearing in the early hours to object to lines in their court reports.

Associated Newspapers’ lawyers had an initial success: they convinced a judge to temporarily redact the names of 73 former and current Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday journalists named in court documents. The newspaper group said this would protect people unable to defend themselves in court at this stage, invoking the protections of the Human Rights Act – legislation the group’s newspapers have long opposed.

Another bone of contention was how Harry and the other claimants were relying on material believed to detail payments to private investigators, which was provided by Associated Newspapers in confidence to the 2011 Leveson inquiry into the media.

Ultimately everything will come down to whether Associated Newspapers can convince a judge that the claimants waited too long to file their legal paperwork. Up to six years is allowed after an individual is aware of the potential crime.

Doreen Lawrence joined Sadie Frost, David Furnish and Elton John in the high court
Doreen Lawrence joined Sadie Frost, David Furnish and Elton John in the high court. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

At face value, the company’s stance could appear contradictory: Associated Newspapers insisted that no illegal behaviour took place at the Daily Mail or Mail on Sunday, but at the same time is arguing that Harry and the other individuals should have suspected that illegal behaviour took place at an earlier stage than they did.

It wasn’t all straightforward for those bringing the claims. One key source of the more lurid claims – including the bugging of cars and the tapping of landlines – was a private investigator called Gavin Burrows. He has now issued a second statement contradicting large chunks of his original witness statement.

Harry’s lawyers argued that doubts over the credibility of witnesses did not change the thrust of their legal argument at this hearing, although it could cause problems if the case goes to trial. In any event, it is now out of their hands.

At some point in the coming weeks Mr Justice Nicklin will hand down a verdict on whether the case can proceed towards trial, either opening the door for one of the most high-profile media trials in British legal history – or killing it before it even began.

Source: The Guardian