Prince Harry’s decision not to attend the opening day of his court case into alleged illegal information gathering by tabloid newspapers was met with “surprise” by the judge on Monday.
Mr Justice Fancourt, the judge hearing the case, said he was “a little surprised” to hear the duke would not be attending court on Monday, despite him being the first of four witnesses due to give evidence in the civil trial at London’s High Court.
All four are suing Mirror Group Newspapers(MGN) for damages, claiming journalists at its titles – which also include the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People – were linked to methods including phone hacking, gaining information by deception, and the use of private investigators for unlawful activities.
David Sherborne, representing the duke and the other claimants, blamed Harry’s non-attendance on him flying to the UK from Los Angeles in the US on Sunday night so he could celebrate his daughter Lilibet’s second birthday earlier that day.
But Andrew Green KC, for MGN, said he wished to have at least a day and a half to cross-examine the duke and was “deeply troubled” he would not be attending before Tuesday.
The case – which began last month and is due to last six to seven weeks – also heard how Harry’s relationship with his brother Prince William suffered “mistrust” because of articles published by MGN.
Mr Sherborne referred to a 2003 article which detailed an alleged row between the duke and Prince William over their mother Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell.
The barrister said: “Even at this very early formative stage… the seeds of discord between these two brothers are starting to be sown.”
“Brothers can sometimes disagree,” Mr Sherborne said, adding: “But once it is made public in this way and their inside feelings revealed in the way that they are, trust begins to be eroded.”
The hearing was also shown letters between the late princess and Michael Barrymore which “plainly” showed that MGN was listening to her voicemail messages, according to Mr Sherborne.
Describing Diana as a “huge target” for MGN, Mr Sherborne claimed that the alleged interception of her messages “would necessarily have involved obtaining information about the young prince [Harry]”.
The claim was denounced as “total speculation” by MGN’s lawyers.
But Mr Sherborne went further and claimed that TalkTV host Piers Morgan – editor of the Mirror between 1995 and 2004 – later referred to hearing rumours about the meetings between Diana and Mr Barrymore in his 2005 book, The Insider.
Mr Sherborne said the reason Mr Morgan knew this was because Mirror journalists would have heard “private messages”.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Mr Morgan strenuously denied knowing “anything about” phone hacking at the Mirror.
Harry alleges about 140 articles published by MGN between 1996 and 2010 contained information gathered using unlawful methods, and 33 of these have been selected to be considered at the trial.
MGN is contesting the claims and has either denied or not admitted each of them.
The publisher also argues that some of the claimants have brought their legal action too late.
When Harry takes the stand, it is thought to be the first time a senior member of the royal family has personally appeared in court proceedings since 2002, when Princess Anne pleaded guilty to a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act. He is also set to become the first royal to enter the witness box since 1890.
On the first day of the trial, lawyers for MGN said the publisher “unreservedly apologises” to the duke for one instance of unlawful information gathering and that it accepts he was entitled to “appropriate compensation”.
Mr Green KC said it was admitted that a private investigator was instructed, by an MGN journalist at The People, to unlawfully gather information about Harry’s activities at the Chinawhite nightclub one night in February 2004.
“Otherwise, the specified allegations are denied, or in a few cases not admitted,” he added.
The three other representative claimants are Coronation Street actor Michael Turner, known professionally as Michael Le Vell, who is best known for playing Kevin Webster, former Coronation Street actress Nikki Sanderson, and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman.
Mr Green said voicemail interception was denied in all four cases and that there was “no evidence or no sufficient evidence”.
At the start of the trial in May, an MGN spokesperson said: “Where historical wrongdoing has taken place we have made admissions, take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly, but we will vigorously defend against allegations of wrongdoing where our journalists acted lawfully.”
MGN has previously settled a number of claims against it in relation to unlawful information gathering, but a 2015 trial of representative claims, including those brought by former Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati, ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne and actress Sadie Frost, is the only other trial to have taken place during the long-running litigation.
The trial continues.
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