A prince of the realm taking on Britain's biggest newspapers is surely newsworthy? Not if you're a reader of one of these titles, writes Liz Gerard
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In the 45 days from 28 March to 12 May, members of the Royal Family featured on our national newspaper front pages 320 times. These appearances included 133 photographs and 82 lead stories.
What do you expect? you might ask. We’ve just had a Coronation for the first time in 70 years. And we can all pledge allegiance to the new King. And Kate had a go at climbing a wall. And Charlotte had a birthday. And Louis wore blue. And some of them went to the pub and drank beer or a gin and tonic. And Camilla’s a jolly good egg. And Meghan is self-centred. And Harry...
Ah yes, Harry.
Harry flew in from America three times during that period. Once to make a brief appearance at the Coronation, twice to attend the High Court, where he accused first the Mail and then the Sun of illegal breaches of privacy.
He was joined in his case against the Mail by Baroness Lawrence, Elton John, David Furnish, Sadie Frost, Liz Hurley and Simon Hughes. Only Hurley and Hughes were missing from court on day one – 27 March. Quite a big deal, you might have thought. Five very big names, including a royal prince, appearing in court in person to sue our most popular news brand. Imagine the sort of coverage that turnout would have achieved were they taking on the BBC rather than the Mail.
So how many of those 320 front-page items did this four-day hearing account for? Six – almost all on the first day.
The Times and Telegraph both had a main photograph of Harry with a caption explaining why he was in the country; the i and Mirror had puffs – the i referring to the court case, the Mirror ignoring that altogether in favour of the King being too busy to see his son. The Guardian also had Harry as the main picture, alongside a splash that focused on Baroness Lawrence’s assertion that she felt betrayed by the Mail – which has made great capital over the years from its pursuit of her son’s murderers.
But the case was covered inside, wasn’t it? Up to a point, Lord Copper.
The Times, i and Telegraph had page leads. The first two focused on the allegations against the Mail; the Telegraph – in common with the other papers that carried anything at all – went on the line that Harry wouldn’t be seeing Dad while he was here. The Mail, which had described the lawsuits as “a pre-planned and orchestrated attempt to draw it into the phone-hacking scandal” and the allegations as “preposterous smears”, ploughed its own furrow with a page five lead headlined 'Key witness says hacking claims "false"'. A private investigator who had told the plaintiffs’ lawyers 18 months earlier that he had acted illegally on behalf of the Mail – “hacking phones, tapping landlines and bugging cars” – had now produced another signed statement retracting it all.
The paper’s owner, Associated, wanted the case thrown out, arguing, among other things, that it was based on material given in confidence to the Leveson Inquiry and because it was out of time. It also applied for anonymity for its journalists “in order to prevent distinguished journalists having their reputations destroyed in the event that the case never proceeds to full trial”. The granting of this application was phrased as “the judge quickly awarded victory to the Mail”. Somehow the factoid that it had been made under the auspices of human rights legislation – which the Mail has repeatedly said should be repealed – did not make it into print.
So much for day one. If Baroness Lawrence was a tasty starter, day two brought a seriously meaty main course in the form of Prince Harry’s witness statement. There were two central features:The Royal Family had known about phone-hacking, he said, but didn’t tell him and did nothing about it for fear of opening a can of worms. There was even, he said, a private agreement with the Murdoch papers not to “engage or even discuss” the possibility of bringing claims against them until the hacking litigation was over. His assertion that he had decided to sue Associated because “if the most influential newspaper company can evade justice... the whole country is doomed”. The statement continued: “I am bringing this claim because I love my country and I remain deeply concerned by the unchecked power, influence and criminality of Associated. 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."
Wow. Just a reminder that this is a statement by a royal prince in documents to the High Court – not a barb thrown out by some bloke in the pub. And he was there, in the flesh, to hear his words read out.
It may be that it shows, as the Mail attests, that he is obsessed. But it surely merits reporting. Apparently not on page one. Only one title – the i – had any mention of the case or Harry’s allegations on the cover, and that as a small puff. The Times had a new portrait of the King, the Telegraph told readers that Charles would be dining with his cousins in Germany. Even the Guardian was too busy with its mea culpa on its founder’s links to slavery.
Most papers ran page leads inside, although the i and The Times did not mention the alleged pact with its stablemates at News Group Newspapers (the Sun and News of the World’s parent company) or Harry’s explanation of why he was suing. As to the two titles whose owners have paid out millions in hacking damages to prevent hundreds of other cases going to court: the Mirror managed five paragraphs in a small single on the royals knowing about hacking; the Sun nothing.
And the Mail? Not a word of those key elements from the Harry witness statement. Instead, it led its spread on its own statement, building on the private investigator’s recantation, with a panel on the side with his “point by point” rebuttals of the claims against Associated. It’s one thing to get your retaliation in first, but this took one-sided reporting to another level.
Harry’s next visit to Blighty and the Strand was on 25 April to take on the Sun which – like the Mail – has always denied phone-hacking. This time his central claim was even more sensational: that News Group Newspapers owners had paid Prince William “a very large sum of money” as part of a private settlement to stop him suing for hacking.
This time the story made the splash for the Guardian and for the Telegraph, which “understood” that the figure was about £1 million. But its headline wasn’t the 'Prince’s £1m phone hacking deal' you might have expected, but that the claim had “left Coronation peace hopes in tatters”. There was, however, a spread inside as well, which was more than anyone else did.
The Times had a page lead and the Express a chunky story on its Coronation spread. But the Mail had just a small single-column on page 10 that started “Prince Harry has dragged William into his war on the British press”. The Sun and the Mirror ran nothing. Royal developments deemed worthy of front-page coverage included a chocolate bust of the King and his resistance to having Heathrow’s Terminal 5 named after him.
There was more interest the next day, after the judge said he was troubled by “factual inconsistencies” in Harry’s story, with more prominent coverage, including a small story in the Mirror (albeit on a different angle) and an early righthand page lead in the Mail.
As with the case against the Mail, third day coverage was more limited – the angle this time being actor Hugh Grant’s claim that stars’ homes were burgled at the Sun’s behest. For the third successive day, the case made the front of the Guardian, a page lead for The Times – and not a single word in the Sun. The Mail may have skewed coverage of its own case for the defence, but at least it was there. The Sun, whose lawyers wanted the case dismissed as out of time, just pretended it wasn’t happening and ignored it altogether.
Harry’s third homecoming was what the Mail called his “blink and you’ve missed it” trip for the Coronation. He may have gone back to California swiftly after the ceremony, but he hadn’t finished with the courts. For just under a week later, on 10 May, a third case started – against Mirror Group Newspapers. And this time it wasn’t a preliminary hearing, but a proper trial, expected to last seven weeks. Harry wasn’t in court for the opening speeches, but was lined up to give evidence, possibly for as long as three days, in June.
The two key features of the first day was MGN’s admission of, and apology for, a single instance of illegal information gathering – by the People – that it said was worthy of compensation, and the assertion by lawyer David Sherborne that it was “inconceivable” that Piers Morgan was unaware of phone-hacking under his editorship. This claim had been made in one of the previous cases and was, indeed, the subject of two identical Guardian front page headlines.
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Morgan – a former Editor of the News of the World and the Daily Mirror who now presents a show on Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV and writes a column for the Sun – had (coincidentally?) just recorded an interview with the BBC's Amol Rajan in which he was asked about hacking on his watch. He said he didn’t know how to hack a phone (even though he had written about it in his autobiography and is reported to have explained how to do it to a Tony Blair aide), and that he was unaware that hacking had been going on at his papers. He also declared that he wasn’t going to take lectures on privacy from Harry and Meghan, who had, he said, constantly invaded the Royal Family’s privacy.
What did our papers make of all that? Apart from the Guardian, only the i and Telegraph had anything on the front, in each case a puff. The i took the 'Morgan knew' line, while the Telegraph went with 'Morgan mocks Duke'. The FT had the earliest inside coverage with a five-column page two story headlined “Mirror accused of industrial scale illegality”. Everyone else pushed the story back as far as they dared. The Sun, Express, Mirror and Star all went on the apology, while The Times and Mail both majored on the defence line that stories Harry claimed were the result of hacking had in fact been fed to journalists by members of his family and royal courtiers.
As for declarations of interest, The Times mentioned Morgan’s current role with Talk TV and listed Harry’s other cases against the press, but did not note that News Group Newspapers shared its ultimate ownership by News Corp. The Mail also mentioned its own case in its coverage. The Sun did not say that it, too, was being sued by Harry. The Express quoted a Mirror spokesman as saying “MGN is now part of a very different company” but did not add that that company was Reach, owners of the Express (and Star).
Only the Guardian, The Times and Mail bothered to print anything about day two of this trial, when Sherborne told the court that Morgan “lies at the heart” of the claims. The Times and Mail both led on the Mirror contentions that stories put down to hacking might have been leaked by a palace aide or the result of an interview with Harry. The Guardian went on Morgan “approving” the illegal blagging of Prince Michael of Kent’s bank details. The reporter allegedly given the assignment was Gary Jones, now Editor of the Express. The Times and Mail did not include this in their stories; the Express ran nothing on the case that day.
But nobody reads print newspapers any more. Dead tree news is dead. People get their news online. So what about live coverage on the day the Mirror trial started?
Broadcasters featured it prominently; independent websites ran live feeds. The Times, FT, Independent, Guardian and Telegraph all had it among the top four stories online. But scroll as far as you could on the Sun, Mail and Mirror home pages and you would find not a word. Click on the 'royals' or 'celebrities' tabs and you’d find Kate and George and Charlotte and Sophie, and more Sussex bad-mouthing, but nothing on the trial. Only by searching 'Harry and High Court' did the Mail offer agency reports of the case on a page called 'wires', which has no tab or link from the home page. This is what you call burying bad – or inconvenient – news.
By day 45 of this little snapshot, not one single national newspaper had presented to its readers a full and fair account of any of the proceedings in the High Court.
The Times and Telegraph came closest, but the rest were either partisan, deliberately blind or uninterested. The Guardian, which of course uncovered and doggedly pursued the phone-hacking scandal from 2009 and blew the whole thing open with its Milly Dowler bombshell in 2011, played the cases up, while most of the others tried to play them down.
When you have such high-profile litigants taking on the country’s biggest news brand – actually accusing its journalists of being criminals – it is worthy of proper attention. When you have a royal prince claiming that the heir to the throne accepted £1 million in hush money to stop him taking the second-biggest news brand to court, it is worthy of proper attention. When you have the King’s son accusing one of the country’s most prominent television presenters of overseeing industrial scale law-breaking, it is worthy of proper attention.
There are those who accuse the British press of a culture of omertà, a reluctance to acknowledge, let alone confront, malpractice within the 'club', even by rivals. They will be able to cite the Harry coverage in support of that complaint. Regardless of whether they are right, this widespread refusal to face challenges to our industry is troubling. But more so is the fact that it raises the question: if reporting of these cases is so unreliable, what does it say about what we are served on everything else?
Meanwhile, the vilification of Harry and his wife continues apace. The day after the Coronation, the anti-Brexit author Edwin Hayward tweeted that he had logged more than 100 negative stories about the couple on the Express website in the space of 72 hours.
These papers know full well that the press has hounded Harry since boyhood and that he blames the tabloids for the death of his mother. But now they brush all that aside as 'other people' and 'all in the past'. It is absolutely in all of their interests to discredit the prince as he stands up to them in court – and they are doing their damnedest to avoid letting their readers know why.
This is an extract from ‘Royal Reporting: The Media and the Monarchy’ edited by John Mair and Andrew Beck. It will be published by MGM Books on 1 June
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