Prince Harry’s legal war against British tabloids suffered a blow on Thursday when the High Court in London ruled there had been no secret deal between Buckingham Palace and Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group over phone-hacking claims.
However, Harry, the younger son of King Charles and the late Princess Diana, can take some of his lawsuit against News Group Newspapers (NGN) to trial over alleged invasions of privacy by its tabloids, the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, from the mid-1990s until 2016.
It is one of a number of cases that Harry, 38, is pursuing at the High Court against British publishers.
Harry, the Duke of Sussex, casts the suits as a mission to hold tabloid executives to account for lying and covering up wide-scale wrongdoing.
Earlier this year, he became the first British royal to give evidence at a trial in 130 years when he testified as part of his case against the publisher of the Daily Mirror. He is also pursuing a case against the Daily Mail.
Harry, who now lives in California with his wife Meghan and their two children, blames intrusive media for wrecking some of his personal relationships and causing the 1997 death of his mother Princess Diana. She died when her chauffeur-driven car crashed as it sped away from chasing photographers in Paris.
Phone-hacking claims not timely: judge
NGN had argued during hearings in April that Harry’s claims should be struck out because they fell outside the six-year time limit for legal action to have been brought.
In 2012, the newspaper group issued an unreserved apology for widespread hacking by journalists at the News of the World, which the Australian-born media magnate Murdoch had been forced to shut down amid a backlash. But the group has always rejected allegations of any wrongdoing by staff at the Sun.
Harry’s lawyers said the prince had not made a claim sooner because there was a “secret agreement” struck between Buckingham Palace and senior figures at NGN to avoid embarrassment.
His legal team have also said his elder brother Prince William, the heir to the throne, had settled a phone-hacking claim against NGN for a “huge sum.”
In Thursday’s ruling, Judge Timothy Fancourt agreed the phone-hacking allegations were made too late, and said he could not conclude there was a “sufficiently plausible evidential basis” for Harry to allege there was a secret deal in place.
But he said the rest of Harry’s claims of “blagging” — or obtaining by deception — confidential details about him and using other unlawful invasions of privacy could proceed to a trial due to begin in January next year.
“The remaining claims must be tried,” he said.
News Group treats ruling as a ‘victory’
Overall, Fancourt said it was difficult to say whether Harry or NGN had won. “I do not find this is a case where it’s possible to say one party is clearly the successful party,” Fancourt told the court.
However, NGN hailed Thursday’s ruling as a “significant victory,” and said the company was drawing a line under phone-hacking which has dogged the publisher since it first came to light in 2005
“It is quite clear there was never any such agreement and it is only the duke who has ever asserted there was,” an NGN spokesperson added.
The Palace has declined to comment.
In addition to his legal battles against the tabloids, Harry has been public about his displeasure with some past actions from his family, including the king and his second wife, Camilla, who he says conspired through royal aides into planting stories about him in papers to enhance their reputations or distract from wrongdoing they might have committed.
Harry has divided British opinion: some disapprove of his distancing from the Royal Family and view him as attention-seeking, while others applaud him as a progressive tackling an immoral media and old-fashioned establishment attitudes.