Home Hacking Prince Harry and Co.’s “Legal Offensive” Against the Daily Mail Sparks a New Chapter in the Phone-Hacking Saga

Prince Harry and Co.’s “Legal Offensive” Against the Daily Mail Sparks a New Chapter in the Phone-Hacking Saga

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On Sunday night, CNN aired part five of The Murdochs: Empire of Influence, a new documentary series that’s basically the real-life version of Succession. Sunday’s episode, “Hack Job,” revisited the phone-hacking imbroglio that rained disgrace on Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids in the early 2010s, upending his entire global media apparatus in the process. For those of us who painstakingly obsessed over every twist and turn in this sordid affair, it was a hearty dose of nostalgia.

And yet, news about phone hacking suddenly feels anything but nostalgic. A raft of fresh allegations from a number of very prominent people have not only thrust the matter back into the headlines, but also ensnared one of Britain’s most powerful media organizations, the Daily Mail, which now faces a “legal offensive”—as the plaintiffs’ lawyers describe it—from a group that includes Prince Harry (already at war with the British tabloids over their coverage of Meghan Markle); Baroness Doreen Lawrence; Sir Elton John and his husband, David Furnish; and the actors Elizabeth Hurley and Sadie Frost.

In a press release issued through the law firm Hamlins on October 6, these individuals publicly claimed they were “the victims of abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy” at the hands of Associated Newspapers, parent company of the Mail and its sister titles, the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline. More to the point, the press release alleges the “hiring of private investigators to secretly place listening devices inside people’s cars and homes”; the “commissioning of individuals to surreptitiously listen into and record people’s live, private telephone calls whilst they were taking place”; and the “accessing of bank accounts, credit histories and financial transactions through illicit means,” among other illegal practices.

The plot soon thickened: Four days after the Hamlins announcement, it was revealed that former British MP Simon Hughes had joined the pile-on. (I’m told Hughes filed his claim the same day as the others, but that it did not initially show up in the court’s e-filing.) Again, details are scant, but The Guardian reported that Hughes’s case was “expected to claim that the newspaper publisher employed a private investigator who improperly accessed his voicemail messages.” A.k.a. phone hacking.

In a separate but adjacent story, The Guardian reported that Murdoch’s Sun faces another eight phone-hacking cases that are “working their way through the legal system.” Originally, phone-hacking revelations focused on Murdoch’s News of the World, which was shut down in 2011. (The following year came the findings of the Leveson Inquiry into British press practices; a long-awaited second installment of the inquiry, examining the relationship between British journalists and the police, was scuttled by Theresa May’s government in 2018, with widespread support from the newspapers.) The scandal, as many expected, did not remain confined to News of the World. Litigation eventually spread to The Sun, which has steadfastly denied phone hacking while still settling lawsuits alleging the practice. (Between News of the World and The Sun, Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, a British division within News Corp, has paid out hundreds of millions of pounds to a veritable army of litigants.) Meanwhile, outside of Murdoch-world, the parent company of the Daily Mirror has been hit with dozens of claims as well.

Now, with the Mail being dragged into court by a cabal of A-listers, some of them veterans of the phone-hacking wars, it appears we’re at the beginning of a new chapter in the more than decade-old saga. “Other than the cancellation of part two of the Leveson Inquiry, this is the most significant development,” said Evan Harris, a former MP and campaigner for press accountability, who settled his own phone-hacking claim against Murdoch’s UK newspaper division earlier this year. “It is significant because the Mail has always said that it was not involved [in criminal behavior], and its executives in fact said so under oath at the Leveson Inquiry. That’s one of the many reasons why the stakes are very high. This is a very powerful media group, even more powerful than the Murdoch press, and it goes to the question of whether the Leveson Inquiry was misled or wrongly informed.” 

The Mail, for its part, isn’t taking the allegations lying down. “We utterly and unambiguously refute these preposterous smears,” reads the statement from Associated Newspapers, “which appear to be nothing more than a pre-planned and orchestrated attempt to drag the Mail titles into the phone hacking scandal concerning articles up to 30 years old. These unsubstantiated and highly defamatory claims—based on no credible evidence—appear to be simply a fishing expedition by claimants and their lawyers, some of whom have already pursued cases elsewhere.”

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