Harry vs Piers is the classic tale of the prince vs the troll

You don’t need to have suffered the burdens of fame to know that it might not be a moral outrage to object to illegal and frightening intrusions into your private life – even if you were planning to put it all on Instagram anyway, writes Tom Peck

Friday 12 May 2023 11:55 BST
Both men were ghosts at what will be another feast for the lawyers
Both men were ghosts at what will be another feast for the lawyers (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It says Various v Mirror Group Newspapers above the door of court 15 of the Rolls Building, but what will go on over the next seven weeks will be going by a catchier moniker: Harry vs Piers. The prince and the troll.

Both men were ghosts at what will be another feast for the lawyers when it began on Wednesday morning down at the High Court. One of them, Prince Harry, will certainly turn up eventually. He’s scheduled to testify three weeks from now; the first time a senior royal has done so in any significant way in modern times.

Morgan may not make it at all. He has no formal reason to, but as Prince Harry’s barrister went through the painful case against Mirror Group Newspapers it was not hard to visualise how its erstwhile editor might be looking had he made it down: just imagine a slightly wobblier-jowled version of the gnashing teeth emoji.

All this – the court cases against half the UK newspaper industry – the Duke of Sussex has described as his new “life’s mission”. At day one of his case against the Daily Mail, he made a surprise appearance in court with Elton John – but not today.

No stubbled ginger jawline, no glowering eyes poked out from the back row of benches. There was precious little to distract attention from the clipped vowels of David Sherborne as he set off, yet again, for a rapid gallop around the dysfunctional tabloid world of the late Nineties and early 2000s, all of which has been extensively covered before.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The rest of team “various” was out in force. Michael Turner, better known as Michael Le Vell, better known as Kevin Webster, the mechanic from Coronation Street sat dutifully behind Mr Sherborne. So did Nikki Sanderson, also of Corrie fame, and Ingrid Tarrant, of Chris Tarrant’s ex-wife fame.

All of them had to walk past the gathered flashbulbs and in through the side door of the courthouse. (Its main revolving door, made briefly famous 10 years ago when Bernie Ecclestone found himself unable to get out through it, was out of action.)

The Rolls Building was built not long before then, chiefly to hear cases of high finance. Court 15 is directly below court 23, and in both architecture and decor is identical. For those of us who were here 12 years ago, to listen to four long months of Roman Abramovich being unsuccessfully sued for £6.6bn, it is somewhat disconcerting to see Corrie’s Kevin sitting in the seats that were once very much filled by the now-deceased Boris Berezovsky’s ex-Mossad goons.

Sherborne’s opening speech could easily have been a casting meeting for I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! circa 2003. For most of the day, hardly a sentence was uttered that did not feature some vaguely famous person or other. Mark Bosnich got a mention several times, as did Sarah Harding.

What was happening at the tabloids back then is not seriously contested. Private investigators used the well-known and regularly unchanged default PINs of the big mobile phone companies to secretly listen to the voicemails of celebrities to get stories about them. It was so laughably easy it barely felt like a crime, but sadly it was. And it had terrible consequences.

Almost all of its victims have settled out of court, taken the money, and most of it from News International. But not all of them. Some have taken it all the way to court, in which the actual human consequences of what must have seemed like a bit of fun at the time were made clear. Paul Gascoigne, for example, has spoken of the deeply troubling impact of, say, arranging to go to a restaurant with a close family member, and then turning up to find photographers hanging around outside. The only way they can possibly have known, he thought, is through deliberate betrayal. It is not long before you stop trusting everyone, which is simply no way to live.

But Harry is not going to settle. He is not interested in any kind of out-of-court payment. He is going to go on to the end, in a fight that he believes, with some justification, is a kind of vengeance for his mother’s death.

“The Duke of Sussex’s claim goes from 1995 to 2011” said Mr Sherborne. “His claim will benefit the other claimants by demonstrating the breadth of unlawful activities engaged in by MGN.”

Prince Harry, in other words, is having the case fought through him.

But, as with his case against the Mail, it will not be the suffering of famous people that turns the case in the court of public opinion, where Harry is very deliberately choosing to fight it. Just as Milly Dowler’s voicemails in effect had the News of the World shut down, this time around we have already seen invoices sent from private investigators to the Mirror group newspapers, wanting payment for their voicemail services with regard to survivors of the 7/7 bombings, sent just six days after the bombing itself.

All the public has thus far heard from Morgan is a tweet picture of the South Park Harry and Meghan piss-take episode, in which the pair of them go on a “Worldwide Privacy Tour” angrily demanding privacy from people who aren’t even remotely interested in them and just want to be left alone.

But, however irritating you might find them, the charge of hypocrisy is a tricky one. Selling your life story for money while suing news organisations who tried to steal it from you might not be entirely likeable behaviour – but is it really hypocritical?

You don’t need to have suffered the burdens of fame to know that it might not be a moral outrage to object to illegal and frightening intrusions into your private life, even if you were planning to put it all on Instagram anyway.

The best hope, at this stage, is that the newspapers involved can do enough to convince people that everything’s changed now. That it all happened a very long time ago was made very clear indeed by virtue of most of the first day’s evidence seeming to concern whose number was saved in whose PalmPilot.

Fleet Street, frankly, just wants all this to go away. But Prince Harry doesn’t. And he’s got not only time on his hands, but a lot of new media money too.

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