LONDON – Prince Harry blamed the royal family for a delay in bringing a phone hacking lawsuit against the publisher of The Daily Mail as lawyers for the newspaper argued Wednesday that the case should be thrown out because he didn't file it soon enough.
The Duke of Sussex said “the Institution” — a term he has used in other contexts to refer to the inner workings of Buckingham Palace — had prevented him from learning sooner about the activity of The Daily Mail and related publications by withholding information about phone hacking by other tabloids.
“The Institution made it clear that we did not need to know anything about phone hacking, and it was made clear to me that the royal family did not sit in the witness box because that could open up a can of worms,” Harry wrote in a witness statement for his lawsuit.
The privacy invasion lawsuits by Harry and six other claimants, including Elton John and actresses Elizabeth Hurley and Sadie Frost, allege Associated Newspapers Ltd. commissioned the “breaking and entry into private property" by hiring private investigators to illegally bug homes and cars and record phone conversations.
The publisher denies the allegations. Its lawyer argued Wednesday that the litigation based on events dating as far back as 1993 should be thrown out because the cases were not filed within a six-year limitation period.
“Whatever claims the claimants had or may have had have been brought far too late,” attorney Adrian Beltrami said. “It is inconceivable that what is claimed to be the key new information leading to each claimant realizing they had a claim arrived unbidden in the past couple of years."
Harry, who showed up for the first two days of the High Court hearing that is set to conclude Thursday, was a no-show Wednesday.
This week's hearing came more than a decade after a phone hacking scandal led to the U.K.'s 2012 Leveson inquiry, which examined law breaking by the British press and resulted in criminal convictions of several journalists and private investigators.
Beltrami said that given the widespread attention the scandal received, it was hard to believe that "any reasonably informed member of the public, let alone a figure in the public eye, to have been unaware of these matters.” He suggested they could have brought their lawsuits within the legal timeframe.
The prince and other parties, however, claim that they were in the dark because of the covert nature of the snooping. They said they were misled when Associated Newspapers journalists falsely denied phone hacking and other means of gathering information for their articles.
The famous claimants said they learned of the unlawful activity after a journalist provided them with ledgers showing how much Associated Newspapers paid investigators. Some investigators have also come forward to admit hacking on behalf of The Daily Mail and related publications.
One of those investigators, Gavin Burrows, has since denied the work he had allegedly admitted doing for Associated Newspapers.
Harry, who has several lawsuits against the news media, has vowed to make reforming the British tabloids his life's work. He blames an overly aggressive press for the 1997 car crash death of his mother, Princess Diana, and has accused reporters and photographers of hounding his wife, Meghan.
"I have always had an uneasy relationship with the press," Harry wrote in his witness statement. “However, as a member of the Institution, the policy was to 'never complain, never explain.' There was no alternative; I was conditioned to accept it.”
While he said he was aware of some news from the phone hacking scandal, he hadn't realized for years how friends and associates were targeted. His decision to take a more aggressive approach came “in the wake of vicious persistent attacks on, harassment of and intrusive, sometimes racist articles concerning Meghan,” he wrote.
Beltrami, however, questioned how closely Harry was paying attention. He noted that the prince's best-selling memoir, “Spare,” describes taking a “keen interest” in the prosecution of News of the World journalists, which was the basis for the 2012 inquiry. Evidence at a related trial showed they repeatedly hacked Harry’s phone.
Harry was “overjoyed” at the arrest of an editor and described his “chipper mood” at the “death rattles coming from the most popular Sunday newspaper, (Rupert) Murdoch’s News of the World. The leading culprit in the hacking scandal,” Beltrami wrote in court papers.
In addition to seeking summary judgment, which would deliver a victory to Associated Newspapers without a trial, the publisher is also seeking to strike much of the evidence on which the claims are based.
Beltrami has argued that the ledgers showing how much private investigators got paid were turned over by Associated Newspapers for the 2012 Leveson inquiry under a confidentiality agreement and therefore could not be used as evidence in court.
Attorney David Sherborne, who represents Harry and the other famous claimants, argued that the documents were presumed to be public unless marked confidential. He said many of the documents had been used for investigative news articles about unlawful reporting practices by Associated Newspapers.