The Duke of Sussex is set to become the first senior royal since the 19th century to face cross-examination in a witness box as he gives evidence in his legal action against the publisher of the Mirror at the High Court on Tuesday.
Prince Harry alleges that Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) used unlawful information gathering methods – including phone hacking – to publish 140 stories about his private life from 1996 to 2010.
MGN claims the articles came from a range of legitimate sources, rather than unlawful means, such as other royals, members of the royal household and freelance journalists.
The historic presence of a royal in the witness box is likely to see the duke face a series of probing questions about his personal life and previous interactions with the media, as MGN’s lawyers seek to bolster their defence.
Relationships and drug use
Some 33 articles, dated between 1996 and 2009, and whether they were obtained using unlawful methods will be examined during the trial.
MGN has told the Hight Court that it denies that 28 out of the 33 stories involved unlawful information gathering and that it was not admitted for the remaining five articles.
The stories delved into Prince Harry’s private life as a young man, covering alleged drug use (‘Harry’s cocaine ecstasy and GHB parties’ – 2002), personal health (‘Harry’s sick with kissing disease’ – 2002) and romantic relationships (‘Harry’s girl ‘to dump him’ – 2005).
MGN’s lawyers are expected to revisit details within the stories, looking to find holes in the Duke of Sussex’s argument that the information could only have come to light through unlawful means.
This may require him to address sensitive episodes from his past.
Harry could be asked about the breakdown of his relationship with girlfriend Chelsy Davy, which he has blamed on tabloid harassment. The extent of his drug use is likely to be addressed.
The death of his mother, Diana, could also be discussed, along with other details of his life growing up within the royal family.
Royal family’s relationship with the media
In submissions to the court, MGN’s lawyers said that many of the stories Harry claims were sourced through unlawful means were in fact the result of briefing from within the Palace.
“Many came from information disclosed by or on behalf of royal households or members of the royal family,” the publishers’ lawyers said.
The Duke could face exposing questions about his family deal with the press behind closed doors.
Lawyers could suggest that people close to Harry were willing to share information about him with the press without his knowledge.
The idea of royals leaking to the media in order to shape coverage is not new.
A leaked letter, written by Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission in 1993, claimed that Diana and Charles attempted to influence reporting of their marital troubles in opposition to one another.
Harry himself has claimed Queen Camilla launched a “campaign” in the British press to gain public support for her marriage with Charles.
In his autobiography, Spare, Harry described how details from a private conversation between Camilla and his brother, William, appeared in the media.
He wrote: “Stories began to appear everywhere in all the papers about her private conversation with Willie. Stories that contained pinpoint accurate details, none of which had come from Willie, of course. They could only have been leaked by the other one other person present.”
Harry’s own relationship with the media
The Duke own relationship with the media is likely to come under scrutiny.
Despite his well-documented hostility to the press, Harry has offered unprecedented personal access to hand-picked media outlets such as Netflix in recent years, as he sought to shape the narrative around the fallout with his family.
In 2021,the Duke and Duchess of Sussex invited Oprah Winfrey into their California home for a sit-down interview, covering their courtship and wedding, along with sex and mental health struggles.
Last year, the couple participated in a six-part Netflix documentary series, Harry & Meghan, making further criticisms of the Royal Family.
At one point, Harry suggested that there was a lack of support from his family after the death of his mother, with the duke going on to describe the “huge level of unconscious bias” within the royal machine.
MGN’s lawyers could use evidence of Harry’s own close dealings with the press to support their argument that there is a broader culture of senior royals choosing to share information with the media.
In 2021, Meghan apologised for misleading the High Court over her recollection of information her aides provided the authors of Finding Freedom, an unauthorised biography about her and Harry.
Meghan sued Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Mail On Sunday, over five articles that reproduced parts of a “personal and private” letter sent to her father, Thomas Markle, in August 2018.
The court heard that Meghan and Harry’s former communications secretary, Jason Knauf, provided information to Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durant – the book’s authors – having been briefed by the duchess. Meghan said she had not remembered this when preparing her statement and had no intention to mislead.
MGN’s lawyers could use the episode as further evidence a leaking culture among the Royals which the Sussexes participated in.
Publication of Spare
Harry’s autobiography Spare, published in January, was packed with explosive revelations about his personal life and relationships with his family.
Most dramatically, the duke alleged that his brother physically attacked him during a heated confrontation, describing William as his ‘arch nemesis’.
Elsewhere, Harry revealed he killed 25 Taliban fighters while serving as a helicopter pilot during his second tour in Afghanistan.
Again, MGN’s lawyers could use publication of Spare as proof of the willingness of the royal family, Harry included, to put private details into the public domain.
Other admissions within the book, such as of Harry’s drug-taking, could be used against him to attempt to undermine his credibility as a witness.
Where was he on Monday?
Harry was absent from court on Monday, despite the judge having instructed witnesses to attend the day before their evidence was due to be heard in case the legal teams’ opening speeches ran short.
David Sherborne, representing the duke , said Harry had flown to the UK from Los Angeles in the US on last night, as he was celebrating his daughter Lilibet’s second birthday on Sunday.
Andrew Green KC, for MGN, said he wished to have at least a day and a half to cross examine the duke and was “deeply troubled” he would not be attending, which may lead to “wasted time” on Monday afternoon.
He could press the Duke on the reasons for his absence further on the witness stand.