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Harry's court case raises awkward questions

Harry's court case raises awkward questions

The court documents revealed by the Duke of Sussex's latest phone-hacking claim against the tabloid press have sent out a volley of unanswered questions.

And that is less than ideal for the Royal Family, who might have wanted these days to be smoothed out like a red carpet in the run-up to the Coronation.

For instance, what was the purpose of Prince Harry in revealing that his brother, the Prince of Wales, had reached a private settlement with the publishers of the Sun and the former News of the World?

It has been claimed in some places - not least on social media - that it was an attempt to undermine Prince William, and by extension the wider Royal Family, at a time when they were hoping to build up a more positive public mood.

But that is very much not the intention, according to sources close to Prince Harry, who is said to be following events in the High Court in London by video link from the US.

From Prince Harry's perspective, the reason for unveiling Prince William's deal was a purely defensive measure, a "shield not a sword", as a necessary piece of evidence to stop the newspaper group from closing down Harry's claim on the grounds of it being out of time.

While the publishers, News Group Newspapers, might say that these claims should have been brought years ago, highlighting Prince William's settlement in 2020 provides proof there were still relatively recent negotiations and pay-outs taking place.

Prince William's spokesman has declined to comment on an "ongoing legal process". But if there was a "very large sum" paid in a settlement, it would raise further questions of what happened to the money. For instance, did this go to charity?

More questions are raised by another key part of the argument against throwing out this case for being out of time - in what Prince Harry's court documents call the "secret agreement".

Prince Harry and Prince William will both be at the coronation

This is claimed as a deal between palace officials and News Group Newspapers in which cases involving the royals would be dealt with after other cases had been settled, to avoid embarrassing court appearances or hacking evidence being put into the public domain.

Prince Harry says he was "kept out of the loop" about this, not least because it "would have infuriated me and I would have insisted that I be allowed to take action, especially given my extremely difficult relationship with the press at that time".

From Prince Harry's perspective this is a smoking gun, which meant that he couldn't bring his case until hundreds of others had been settled.

From the perspective of the newspaper publishers this is a gun that didn't smoke because it never existed.

"There was no such secret agreement," said the lawyers for News Group Newspapers, rejecting such claims as being "without merit in fact or in law".

The newspaper group also suggests Prince Harry must have known about reports of hacking at a much earlier stage, having been at the "epicentre" of the story, and they argue he could have acted sooner.

Preparations are being made for crowds at the coronation on 6 May

But Prince Harry's version of events, and his assertions that his father the King discouraged his legal action, raise wider questions about the press and the Royal Family.

The relationship is depicted by Prince Harry as an uncomfortable trade-off, with the royals wanting to keep the press "onside" because they were "incredibly nervous" about the potential for public embarrassment if a royal had to go into a witness box or if an intercepted voicemail had been revealed.

But sources close to Prince William reject claims that any settlement could be seen as a sign of a cosy deal with the press.

He's had his own privacy battles for himself and his family, including over photographs of his wife Catherine, and striking a deal could be a pragmatic way to draw a line under a legal claim.

It was Prince William who helped to establish that phone-hacking was taking place back in 2005.

But there are so many loose threads raised by this case and there are no signs that Prince Harry will desist from pulling on them to see what unravels.

It's also hard to know how these legal battles will go down with the public. They might warm to an underdog. Journalists usually talk about "the press" as though it's someone else, not themselves, perhaps in recognition of our own lack of popularity.

In terms of the question of what's driving Prince Harry, sources point to a specific part of his witness statement and it doesn't sound like he's planning to settle. It seems more likely that he will soon be appearing in court as a witness, which would probably horrify the palace.

"What I complain of here is about illegal or unlawful activities, and that is something which I feel incredibly strongly about, not just in a personal capacity but as part of the role I have always taken on, in terms of my duty to stand against things which are unjust," Harry writes.

He seems furiously motivated by the impact of hacking and press hounding - including for his mother Princess Diana, saying it had intruded on "every area of my life" and had been like a "third party" in his relationships.

The use of hacking to obtain stories was "disgusting, immoral and a complete abuse of power", he writes in his court statement.

A judge will have to decide whether this current claim can go ahead to a full trial. But there's already another case against another newspaper group lined up for the days following the coronation and two other claims in progress.

There are going to be more difficult questions.


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