Why did so many British newspapers just play down a real royal story?

A legal ruling that Prince Harry's phone had been hacked by reporters raises questions about how papers operate in the UK

Britain's Prince Harry pictured outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on June 7 after giving testimony in his legal action against Mirror Group Newspapers. Reuters
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The relationship between British newspapers and the royal family is, and perhaps always has been, very odd. It manages to be simultaneously fawning and predatory.

One “quality” paper recently reported that 10-year-old Prince George, the grandson of King Charles III and son of the Prince of Wales “has grown into an elegant and charming pre-teenager who looks like a future James Bond, according to a French media view of the Wales family’s 2023 Christmas card”.

Prince George is in line to be king one day. But does anyone really consider this to be a “news” story? A comparison between a child and James Bond based on a French journalist looking at a royal Christmas card?

Another British newspaper reported on page one that Prince George “may” go to “mum’s old school”. He may, presumably, go somewhere else. I “may” win the Eurovision Song Contest (though this is unlikely).

Yet, curiously in the past few days, many British newspapers have given limited coverage to a real royal story. Perhaps it’s underplayed because it hits newspapers where it hurts most – in their pockets.

The story concerns the conclusion of Prince Harry’s civil court case, who alleged that journalists hacked his phone years ago. The Duke of Sussex has in recent times become the royal some newspapers love to loathe.

In his cheeky autobiography titled Spare, he calls himself that. It’s the idea that the monarch must produce “an heir and a spare,” to ensure the royal succession. Prince William is the “heir”. Prince Harry is “spare”. Perhaps that explains why British newspapers treat the two brothers so differently, one with respect, the other with contempt. Royal reporting in Britain is a soap opera. There must be heroes – “a future James Bond” – and supposed villains.

This court vindication of his claims is more important than money

Last week, Piers Morgan, the former editor of the tabloid The Mirror, asserted that the duke – repeatedly characterised by Mr Morgan as the supposed villain – actually wants to destroy the monarchy. I’m no expert, but I think that’s nonsense. But in the civil court case the judge, Mr Justice Fancourt, awarded the duke £140,000 ($178,320) in damages from the Mirror Group Newspapers where Mr Morgan formerly held a senior position.

The judge ruled that Prince Harry had indeed been a victim of phone hacking and other unlawful acts by journalists working for Mirror Group, and that editors knew about this activity. The judge said that hacking phones had been “an important tool” for The Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, and that hacking continued even during the Leveson Inquiry into UK press standards in 2011.

The judge concluded that about half (15) of 33 articles at the centre of the duke's complaint came about through phone hacking or unlawful information gathering. This court vindication of his claims is more important than money. It has led to London’s Metropolitan Police commenting that they will "carefully consider" whether any potentially criminal activity against the duke should result in further investigation.

This could be very messy. In the civil case Mr Justice Fancourt also found that Sly Bailey, the Mirror Group’s former chief executive, and Paul Vickers, formerly the group legal director, had “turned a blind eye to what was going on, and positively concealed it”. Ms Bailey and Mr Vickers strongly deny these findings. Mr Morgan was similarly robust: “I have never hacked a phone or told anyone else to hack a phone, and nobody has produced any actual evidence to prove that I did.”

In his own statement, Prince Harry, unsurprisingly, was delighted with the court verdict: "Today's ruling is vindicating and affirming. I have been told that slaying dragons will get you burned, but in light of today's victory and the importance of doing what is needed for a free and honest press, it is a worthwhile price to pay.” And that’s why a quick scan of British newspapers since the court verdict is so interesting.

Some sections of the media retain their hunger for negative stories about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But they seem to lack a similar enthusiasm for detailed stories about this verdict and the duke's very public desire to, in some way, clean up dirty dealings in the British press.

Famous actors and others in the public eye, including Hugh Grant, Elton John and Liz Hurley have raised questions about how newspapers operate in Britain. This story, as editors say, will run and run. The standard of proof required for a successful prosecution in phone-hacking cases is high.

Yet, maybe, just maybe, this verdict might alert readers of tabloid gossip-fodder to the ethics, or lack of them, within sections of the British media. Readers might also recognise that comparing a 10-year-old prince to James Bond or suggesting that he “may” go to a particular school is not news. It’s not even gossip. It’s at best speculative trivia and at worst, nonsense.

Published: December 20, 2023, 7:00 AM