Prince Harry’s court battle with a British newspaper over alleged phone hacking is expected to dial up a notch when he takes to the witness box to face what is expected to be an unprecedented grilling of a senior member of the royal family.
The Duke of Sussex is expected to jet into the UK from his home in California to testify – a move that will have aides in Buckingham Palace on high alert and members of the monarchy braced for possible further criticism.
Earlier this year, he described “the mission of changing the media landscape in the UK” as “my life’s work”.
The National spoke to legal and royal experts who said that Prince Harry was “playing with fire”.
The case is one of several legal battles the duke has on the table in the UK against the country’s largest tabloids.
Since stepping down from royal duties in early 2020 in protest over his family’s treatment of him and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry has been relentless in speaking out against what he perceives as injustices.
The duke will testify at London’s High Court on a date in early or mid-June, the Associated Press reported, citing lawyers and a preliminary schedule of witnesses.
'Prince Harry is playing with fire'
Andrew Lownie, a royal biographer, likened the prince’s determination to alter the fabric of the country’s press to playing an unwise game in which he could get hurt.
Harry has admitted that his father, King Charles III, warned him such a pursuit would amount to a “suicide mission”.
But the father of two appears to be undeterred in his calling.
“He is playing with fire here,” Lownie told The National. “Harry is like a bull in a china shop.
“He blames the media for the death of his mother.
“The monarchy works when everything is not in the news, or at least when they can shape the news agenda. This is a distraction from that.”
Lownie said as the duke's witness testimony nears, there will no doubt be nervousness among aides in Buckingham Palace over the prospect of further accusations being made about members of the royal family.
British royals in court - in pictures
King Charles’s coronation in May proved a major success for the institution in terms of publicity and popularity among the public. Since ascending the throne upon the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II last September, the 74-year-old has worked to make the role his own and thrown himself into the causes closest to his heart.
But his first year has not been without upsets, most notably due to the release of Prince Harry’s tell-all book, Spare, in which he branded Queen Camilla “dangerous” and accused Prince William of physically attacking him.
“It must be hugely embarrassing for the royal family just the fact that he is appearing in court,” Lownie said. “Who knows what he will say. He could throw further incendiary bombs into the royal family.
“We kind of think, can it go to a lower depth? I think it can.
“He is in attack mode. It’s extraordinary. He may have all sorts of revelations about members of the family. They just don’t have the power to stop him.”
If Prince Harry chooses to use the witness box as a platform to drop unpleasant revelations about the royals, it will leave them in a “very, very tricky” position,” he added.
The prince last week lost a legal application to enter three new witness statements into evidence in the trial against MGN.
Despite suffering setbacks, he appears to be undeterred in his quest to hold to account media outlets he feels wronged by.
King's son set for 'tough grilling'
Gregory Monk, a solicitor specialising in reputation and privacy at Vardags law firm in London, traced the prince’s bull-headed approach back to his days serving in the British Army.
“[Prince] Harry has made it his life’s mission to change the press,” Mr Monk told The National. “He found meaning in the army and he has decided to tackle this head on.”
Mr Monk said given that Prince Harry appears to have opted for an in-person appearance before the court, when he could easily have given evidence via video link from the US, emphasises his sense of purpose in the legal fight.
The prince should be prepared for a tough grilling by his opponent’s lawyers, he said.
“Harry has shown himself to be willing to be grilled, and to do so in public,” Mr Monk said. “He didn’t have to. There are enough people involved as claimants in this case that the legal principles could have been decided without his involvement.
“You never know how someone is going to react under questioning,” he added.
“These barristers are skilled and will be well prepared. You can expect them to treat Harry with respect, but they won’t do him any favours. They are there to win for their client.
“He will be treated like any other witness and the judge will decide what weight to give to his evidence.
“It’s tough being in the witness box. It’s not a pleasant experience and cases can be won or lost by how witnesses perform under cross-examination.”
While Harry’s decisive moment in court will be significant, it will not be the first time a senior member of the royal family finds themself before a court.
Princess Anne appeared in court in 2002 when she pleaded guilty to a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act. The case related to an incident in which her English bull terrier, called Dotty, bit two children in Windsor Great Park, and led to her being the first royal to be convicted of a criminal offence.
Richard Fitzwilliams, a royal author and commentator, said Prince Harry’s time in court will still be an “enormously significant” moment for the British monarchy.
“The Sussexes have a habit of surprising and you never quite know what they are going to do,” Fitzwilliams told The National. “It is unclear what evidence may come out. Something sensational could emerge.”
Prince Harry and Meghan's rift with the royal family has been well documented since they departed the institution, known as The Firm, three years ago.
The prince attended his father's coronation last month, but Meghan and their two young children, Archie and Lilibet, did not join him.
The Sussexes made headlines a short while later when a spokesperson alleged that the couple and Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, “were involved in a near-catastrophic car chase at the hands of a ring of highly aggressive paparazzi”. Their representative claimed the incident happened after the three had attended an awards ceremony in New York where the duchess was honoured.