Prince Harry Piers Morgan: The seven-week trial concerning allegations of phone hacking by journalists from Mirror Group Newspapers has finally concluded. The question remains: Is the mounting evidence against the tabloid strong enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
Throughout the hacking court case, it felt as if we had been transported back in time to the pre-social media era when the news was consumed through tangible pages of ink on paper.
We found ourselves immersed in the headlines of the 1990s and 2000s. It was when the newspapers were teeming with stories about Prince Harry. As a young man just out of school, embarking on his first romantic ventures, his daily exploits captured the attention of the masses.
Prince Harry Phone Hacking Trial Unveiled
Additionally, soap opera stars were also thrust into the spotlight. Two actors from Coronation Street, Michael Turner, who played mechanic Kevin, and Nikki Sanderson, who portrayed hairdresser Candice, became claimants in this high-profile trial.
Fiona Wightman, the fourth claimant, became embroiled in the tabloid frenzy due to her marriage to Paul Whitehouse. Whitehouse achieved fame in the 1990s through his comedic sketches on The Fast Show.
Amidst the trial, it became apparent that the Mirror journalists did not solely fabricate their stories, as many critics of tabloids tend to believe. Instead, they pursued accurate reporting of celebrity secrets with the same vigor that any reputable journalist would employ while investigating a corrupt politician.
However, their most coveted asset was sensitive personal information, some of which had been illicitly obtained through phone hacking. There is no longer any dispute from the newspapers themselves regarding this matter, as this trial is not the first of its kind.
“An Unbreakable Thread of Evidence”
In 2015, the publisher of Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and People, now known as Reach PLC, admitted that journalists employed phone hacking and other illegal methods during a landmark case brought forth by another Coronation Street actor, Shobna Gulati, and others.
During that trial, Mr. Justice Mann of the High Court ruled that from 1999 to 2015, there had been widespread and institutionalized phone hacking at the newspapers, with editors being aware of it. Tina Weaver, the editor of the Sunday Mirror at the time, was particularly implicated. The publisher subsequently issued an apology.
In the recently concluded trial, the claimants sought to expand the legal action to include more potential victims. They aimed to demonstrate that the phone hacking scandal reached the upper echelons of Mirror Group, implicating the board members and lawyers. If Mr. Justice Fancourt concludes that they were aware of the wrongdoing but failed to take appropriate action, the company could face substantial compensation claims.
Throughout this trial, the claimants endeavored to build a case against Piers Morgan, the former Mirror editor from 1995 to 2004. Morgan had emerged relatively unscathed from the 2015 trial. The claimants presented a series of incidents that suggested Morgan possessed substantial knowledge of phone hacking and blagging, the unscrupulous acquisition of personal information such as addresses, phone bills, or bank statements. Their objective was to establish an irrefutable chain of evidence against him.
These incidents included a lunch meeting where Morgan advised a phone company executive to inform customers to change their PIN numbers due to journalists being able to access their voicemail messages. Testimony from a former intern stated that they overheard a journalist assure Morgan that a story about singer Kylie Minogue was accurate because it had originated from her voicemails. A former Guardian journalist provided a statement in which Morgan explained that most people failed to change the default access code for their voicemails, making them easily guessable. Furthermore, an agent for TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson found it suspicious that Morgan seemed to possess extensive knowledge about her client.
The Absence of Piers Morgan
However, neither side called Morgan as a witness to testify in his defense. In civil trials, witnesses are typically summoned only if they can provide valuable assistance to either side. The Mirror Group argued that Morgan’s testimony would serve as an unnecessary distraction from the primary issues that the judge needed to decide.
The key question in this trial pertained to the knowledge of the executives. Mirror Group Newspapers contended that Piers Morgan, not being a board member, had attended only two meetings over a span of nine years. Nonetheless, towards the end of the proceedings, the judge placed Morgan at the top of a list of 29 journalists who had failed to appear in court, asserting that he “could and should” have provided evidence.
Morgan recently reiterated in an interview with the BBC that he never engaged in phone hacking and claimed to have no knowledge of it. However, he admitted that he couldn’t be certain whether stories published during his tenure had employed unlawful methods.
The judge will now decide whether Morgan’s failure to testify creates an inference of his involvement or if no ruling regarding the former editor is necessary.
Unveiling the Network of Private Investigators
What other revelations did the trial unveil? It lifted the veil on a network of private investigators (PIs) who specialized in supplying personal information to tabloids. For the first time, some of these aging veterans of the information trade were compelled to appear in court, alternating between dismissive and bewildered responses to the questions posed to them.
Between 1996 and 2011, the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and People disbursed a minimum of £9 million to these PIs. Reporters from the Mirror papers routinely subcontracted information gathering to these individuals. They were tasked with obtaining addresses, phone numbers, and other details from credit reference agencies or the Electoral Roll, potentially violating data protection laws.
It was alleged that journalists might exploit this information to hack a celebrity’s phone themselves or pass it on to another specialist investigator with connections to additional sources. These sources could impersonate bank customers to gain access to financial records or NHS personnel to obtain medical information. Some investigators excelled at scouring through credit records, while others specialized in digging through rubbish bins—literally, examining the contents of celebrities’ trash.
The acquired information would then make its way back up the chain and be presented to the reporter. The claimants argued that this enabled journalists to attribute the information to “sources” and deny knowledge of its potentially illicit acquisition. Phone hacking quotes were often presented as the words of anonymous “insiders” to obfuscate their origins, as revealed during the trial.
Andrew Green KC, representing Mirror Group, acknowledged that certain investigators had violated the law, referring to them as “rotters” on multiple occasions. However, he maintained that most of the time, they relied on legitimate databases.
Victims’ Testimony and Emotional Toll
Three individuals were selected as test cases for “unlawful information gathering.” Prince Harry, refusing to settle with the Mirror, took the initiative to become the fourth claimant.
While in the witness box, the claimants had to defend their cases against Andrew Green’s arguments. He attempted to convince them that the newspapers’ stories about them must have originated from publicly available sources, friends, “insiders,” other newspapers, or even interviews that they willingly participated in.
He asserted that the four cases had been exaggerated and, in Prince Harry’s case, were entirely speculative. Unlike the 2015 trial, Green argued, there was very little evidence of phone hacking or unlawful information acquisition.
Prince Harry adopted a restrained approach while testifying, suppressing his anger and placing the burden on the journalists to explain how they obtained their stories about him. Although he hadn’t read all 33 articles pertaining to his case, he claimed that each one had caused distress, as they tainted his relationships with friends whom he suspected of leaking information.
These stories were so accurate that he found them “incredibly suspicious,” suggesting they may have been sourced illegitimately, potentially through phone hacking. Prince Harry couldn’t identify which specific voicemails had been accessed, emphasizing that these events occurred a long time ago.
Impact on Fiona Wightman
The emotional toll of tabloid reporting became evident when Fiona Wightman took the witness stand. In 2000, her separation from comedian Paul Whitehouse and her subsequent cancer diagnosis became subjects of interest for the Mirror newspapers. Allegedly, the publications attempted to employ a “blogger” to gather information about her medical condition.
Overwhelmed with emotions, Wightman tearfully revealed, “I’ve had to discuss some of the most personal things I have had to go through. The most difficult times in my life.” Paradoxically, she acknowledged that now, due to her involvement in the trial, the details could be reported. However, at the time, she had chosen not to discuss any of it.
The Outcome and Future Trials
A swift verdict regarding these cases should not be expected. It may take several months before Mr. Justice Fancourt delivers his judgment, leaving over 100 potential claimants anxiously awaiting his decision.
More than a decade has passed since well-known individuals began challenging the newspapers they claim have tormented their lives. Hundreds of victims have received compensation through legal settlements, but only Mirror Group Newspapers has allowed the battle to extend to a public trial.
Nevertheless, the Sussex v MGN case will not be the final trial. In the coming year, actor Hugh Grant plans to take on the publisher of the Sun newspaper, with the possibility of Prince Harry joining him. Round two awaits the Duke.
Additionally, a more aggressive legal battle looms on the horizon. Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mail, is preparing to fend off fresh allegations made by Elton John, Doreen Lawrence (the mother of murdered Stephen Lawrence), and Prince Harry. These allegations include phone tapping and the use of bugs. The publisher has categorically denied any involvement in what has come to be known as “the dark arts.”