Yes, the British Tabloids Are Bad. But Prince Harry’s Argument Against Them Is Weak.

I'm sympathetic to his case; he's been overly scrutinized and overly criticized for most of his life. That is not fair. But that doesn't mean it's a crime.

Yes, the British Tabloids Are Bad. But Prince Harry’s Argument Against Them Is Weak.
Photo:Karwai Tang/WireImage, Leon Neal (Getty Images)

Prince Harry—he of the once-frozen todger—is back in old Blighty this week to participate in one of his favorite pastimes: fighting the media.

Harry took the stand on Tuesday (the first time a royal had done so in over 130 years) to testify against the Mirror Newspaper Group (MNG), whom he and more than 100 other people are suing over various alleged misdeeds, including phone hacking and paying for stories, between 1991 and 2011.

Prior to what was described as a “relentless” car chase in Manhattan in May and a quick appearance at his father’s coronation, we hadn’t heard much from the Duke of Sussex since he released his memoir, Spare, in January, or since the Netflix docuseries about his and Meghan’s love-and-escape-from-the-UK story dropped in December. Both the book and the series were full of complaining about the British press, so his reemergence doing the same on Tuesday was a fitting return to form.

Harry faced questioning from Andrew Green, a lawyer for MNG, about the various allegations he’s leveled against the Mirror, the most serious of which is phone hacking; in his opening statement, Green apologized on behalf of MNG for “the one instance of phone hacking.” As a Guardian columnist pointed out, “We’re now being expected to believe that at a time when hacking was rife among the tabs, MGN spotted just one example and then clamped down on it hard. So much so, that it never, ever happened again.” I agree that this seems highly unlikely. (The News of the World tabloid infamously came under fire by other public figures, including Hugh Grant, for phone hacking in the 2000s and was shut down following the controversy in 2011.)

But however likely Harry’s assessment of wrongdoing by the newspaper may be, his legal case seems to be fairly weak. In his 49-page witness statement, he says tabloid coverage of his childhood was trying. “I was often singled out for being a ‘sick note’ or a ‘pussy’ because articles like this made routine injuries seem like such a big deal,” he wrote. He also said that, especially as a teenager, ​​he “[played] up to a lot of headlines…It was a downward spiral, whereby the tabloids would constantly try and coax me, a ‘damaged’ young man, into doing something stupid that would make a good story and sell lots of newspapers,” HuffPost reported.

In a vacuum, that makes my heart hurt. Being a teenager is fucking rough, and the royal family is famously not a warm and fuzzy bunch (also, they’re overtly racist). Add whatever rude shit tabloid reporters are saying about you and, yeah, that’s a toxic mess. But courts of law do not exist to legally classify something as a toxic mess, and aristocratic boys being monsters to each other at boarding school is not the fault of even the worst tabloid headline writers. I can promise you those guys would’ve been assholes, even if the Mirror pretended Harry didn’t exist.

Green’s cross-examination further revealed how weak Harry’s case is. The prince could not, in multiple instances, cite specific articles that caused him consternation. Green also pointed out that, in many cases, the Mirror was not the first outlet to report certain stories Harry has objected to. “Just because there was a story which came out previously doesn’t mean there weren’t attempts to take the story further,” Harry retorted, according to HuffPost.

I am sympathetic to Harry’s argument; he has been intermittently overly scrutinized and overly criticized by the UK tabloids for most of his life. That is not fair. I also don’t think it’s a crime, though the UK has much stricter laws regarding press freedom than the United States, so perhaps making Harry miserable will be deemed a criminal offense. After all, his wife, Meghan Markle, has already had success in suing another tabloid: In 2021, she won her lawsuit against Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, for “invasion of privacy” over its publication of a letter she wrote her father shortly before her wedding to Harry in 2018. (Harry and Meghan did not meet until 2016, otherwise, I would bet my meager life savings that she would also be a plaintiff in this case.)

Interestingly, Harry’s lawyer is one David Sherborne, whom Tatler described as the “lawyer that the A-list call upon when it comes to matters of defamation, privacy or confidentiality.” Among his other famous past clients (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Coleen Rooney of “WAGatha Christie” fame) is Johnny Depp, whom Sherborne represented in his case against the Sun, which he sued after it called him a “wife beater.” Despite Depp’s victory over Amber Heard in an American courtroom last year, he lost against the Sun: The presiding judge ruled that the tabloid, in conjunction with Heard, proved that the description was “substantially true” by providing evidence of 12 instances of physical abuse. (The rich and powerful do not, of course, choose their expensive, high-powered lawyers based on any silly thing like “morals” but I have to wonder what Meghan Markle—a longtime supporter of women’s empowerment, both in the inane and bullshit sense and in the real, actually helpful sense—had to say about aligning with the lawyer of someone legally deemed to be a “wife beater” in the UK.)

Harry’s complaints are being used as one of four “test cases” against MNG. If he wins, according to HuffPost, the judge will use it as a “template” for how to reward damages to the other phone-hacking victims. And because there are so many other people involved whom Harry’s win might help, I’m rooting for him. But I’d also advise him going forward to figure out a hobby or vocation that is not just repeatedly litigating the past.

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