Lawyers for the Mirror newspaper group accused Prince Harry and three other claimants of engaging in a “highly publicised smearing” of its former board at the High Court in London on Friday.
The court is hearing a high-profile lawsuit brought by the prince and three others alleging that Mirror Group Newspapers unlawfully gathered information at its three titles for almost 20 years — between 1991 and 2011 — including through phone hacking and use of private investigators.
The media group’s lawyers maintain the prince and the other claimants — who include Coronation Street actors Nikki Sanderson and Michael Turner, and Fiona Wightman, former wife of the comedian Paul Whitehouse — are a “long way off” proving the publisher unlawfully gathered information and told the court that no evidence of phone hacking has been shown in the four cases.
But they also admitted that in three of the cases “some evidence” shows third parties being instructed to carry out unlawful information gathering.
The trial heard on Friday that Mirror Group Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People, had already “paid out £100mn in damages and costs” and settled more than 600 other claims relating to phone hacking and unlawful information gathering by journalists. In 2015 it paid out £1.2mn in damages to eight victims of phone hacking after a High Court civil trial.
David Sherborne, the barrister representing Prince Harry and the other claimants, told the court this week that the unlawful information gathering and “flood of illegality” was known about by senior executives at Mirror Group at the time and was “successfully covered up by the Plc”.
In his written arguments Sherborne claimed that David Grigson, then chair of the board, was alerted in 2012 about claims of phone hacking at the newspapers by Brian Basham, a former journalist who ran an analytical company research business.
The barrister alleged that senior executives including Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, as well as members of the Trinity Mirror board and the MGN legal department, “knew or were aware of the use of these unlawful activities “. Sherborne claimed that Morgan “was right at the heart of this in many ways”. Morgan has always denied involvement in phone hacking.
On Friday, Andrew Green KC, the barrister representing Mirror Group Newspapers, told the High Court that the group “strongly denies” the allegations about the board and said there was a “real concern that there has been a highly publicised smearing of the reputation of the board and board members” with “extreme allegations of dishonesty”.
Green argued that the claimants had not provided any direct evidence of any board member “making a false or dishonest statement” about the knowledge of unlawful information gathering.
“By contrast, MGN has provided witness evidence from Board members (which the Claimants are in no position to gainsay) denying any such knowledge.” he added in written arguments.
He also claimed that many of the allegations by claimants “were made with a sense of outrage” and said that there was “nothing unlawful” about third parties gathering information from publicly available sources.
Mirror Group Newspapers also argued that the lawsuits had been brought too late.
Next week, the trial will start hearing evidence from witnesses including former journalists at the Mirror titles. Prince Harry is set to testify in mid-June. The trial is due to last seven weeks.
The case is only one of Prince Harry’s legal battles with the UK media.
He is already suing Rupert Murdoch’s news UK group, over alleged phone hacking and misuse of private information. NewsGroup Newspapers denies phone hacking took place at its Sun newspaper and argued last month that the lawsuit should be struck out before trial because it has been brought too late.
Prince Harry is also suing Associated Newspapers, which publishes the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, along with celebrities including singer Elton John, alleging phone hacking and unlawful information gathering. Associated “firmly denies” the claims and is seeking to have the case thrown out before trial.