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Sensemaker: Harry vs the press

Sensemaker: Harry vs the press

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UN said a decision by Syria to allow aid deliveries across two more northern border crossings would make a big difference to earthquake relief efforts. 
  • 100,000 people protested in Jerusalem against government plans to reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary.
  • Coca-Cola said Lilt would be rebranded as Fanta Pineapple and Grapefruit.

Harry vs the press

Prince Harry’s legal claims against Britain’s three biggest news groups are headed to court as part of what he’s called his “life’s work” to change the country’s media landscape.

So what? The Harry saga is just getting started. His claims that Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday), News Group (The Sun and the News of the World), and Mirror Group routinely breached his privacy over more than two decades are based on newly unearthed material, including:

  • call data that suggests phone hacking was more widespread than previously known, pointing for example to 315 attempts at accessing Harry’s private secretary’s voicemails between 2004 and 2006;
  • payment records from the tabloids to private investigators, including News Group’s 130 payments for information on Harry’s ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy; and
  • allegations by private investigators who used to work for the tabloids, and are now witnesses for Harry’s cases, of landline tapping and of tracking devices being placed on cars.

All three groups have strongly denied these claims and allegations. 

But tales of tabloid misbehaviour began in 2005 with the convictions of a journalist on the News of the World and a private investigator for intercepting voicemails, including those left on royals’ mobile phones. And even after the News of the World’s closure in 2011, multiple police investigations and a public inquiry, there has been a sense of unfinished business about the story.

Many senior editors – and entire publications – appear to have evaded accountability. Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News, was acquitted of voicemail interception in 2014 because the prosecution’s 12 confirmed voicemail hacks at the News of the World couldn’t be linked directly to her and because they had no evidence covering her editorship of The Sun.

But the new material Harry submitted to the court alleges that during her time on The Sun, the tabloid published 18 articles based on unlawfully acquired information. A spokeswoman for News says the claim is a matter for a future trial.

The law. The tabloids have been settling privacy claims for years. The Mirror Group has already paid out some £75 million and News Group has paid out around £400 million in damages and costs. The head of media law at Bindmans, Tamsin Allen, says claimants have an incentive to accept a settlement offer “because if they don’t, and it goes to trial and they do as well or less well than the offer, they have to pay all the costs to the opposing party, and that will more than wipe out damages” – usually around £200,000 – “in most cases.” 

The point. But Harry appears determined to go to court. He seems to want a public kind of accountability in which senior media figures who he says caused him considerable “distress” are brought to court, cross-examined, and embarrassed. He wants the court to infer that, contrary to their previous statements and denials, these individuals knew about their journalists’ unlawful behaviour.

In this light, Harry’s claims appear to be less about reforming the British press than about exacting revenge for the tabloids’ treatment of him, his ex-girlfriends, wife, and, especially, his mother Princess Diana.

New vs old media. The media landscape has changed beyond recognition since the 1991-2011 period Harry’s claims focus on. And ironically he himself is the best example of that: the ghost-written memoir, his Netflix documentary, Meghan Markle’s podcast, the television interviews that he’s granted to fellow celebrities and journalist-friends – it all shows how he’s bypassing traditional media.

Harry has become his own media brand; one whose power is growing while that of the tabloids slowly fades. So far, he has used it to promote his view of himself and to launch privacy claims. When Tortoise asked Piers Morgan, who once edited the News of the World and the Daily Mirror, to respond to those claims, he said: “I wish Prince Harry all the very best in protecting invasions of privacy… from himself.”

The claims, which are the subject of this week’s Slow Newscast, will come to court this summer.


Olivier le Pooch
There are three things to be said about a Bloomberg report today that Russia pumped more oil last year than in more than a decade, despite sanctions. The first is that it’s based on Russian data, which is not necessarily to be trusted. The second is that it is nevertheless plausible: the data says increased production flowed from more drilling in established fields, which doesn’t require the high-tech western gear that’s needed for new exploration and is now subject to export bans. The third is that Olivier le Peuch needs cross-examining. He runs Schlumberger, the world’s biggest oilfield services company. Unlike most of its rivals, Schlumberger is continuing to operate in Russia albeit with some limitations. Le Peuch, who’s French and reportedly earned close to $20 million last year, says the company’s unique corporate structure lets it continue to work in Russia without violating sanctions. Really? In what moral universe?  


Smart shopping
Amazon says it’s going to have another go at cracking America’s $1.6 trillion food retail business. Two bold forays in the past few years didn’t quite pay off. One was buying Whole Foods, America’s Waitrose-on-steroids, for $13.7 billion. It turned out not enough Americans could afford Whole Foods prices for that to be a platform for large-scale disruption. The other was opening an initial wave of Amazon Fresh checkout-free stores in the middle of the pandemic. People were staying home. But now people are real-world revenge shopping with a vengeance and Amazon’s newish CEO tells the FT “we have a format we want to go big on, on the physical side”. Don’t expect many new summer jobs behind the till. Do expect Amazon to double down on the chip-scanning technology that enables smart trolleys to bill customers as they walk out, without even troubling them for an iris-scan.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Welby’s forced hand
In Friday’s Sensemaker, we noted that the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t like politicians telling him what the Church of England should do on same-sex marriage. It appears Justin Welby has now gone a step further. In a speech to the global Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Ghana, he said he was “summoned twice to Parliament” and “threatened with parliamentary action to force same-sex marriage” on the Church. Welby also said many General Synod members had “dismissed” his concerns about the impact the Church’s decisions would have outside England. Campaigners on both sides of the gay marriage debate, and the MPs he spoke to, have remarked on the striking difference in tone between his speeches in Westminster and Accra. Ghana’s government is currently debating some of the strictest anti-LGBT+ laws in the world.  

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

In 2021, Ben Ratner and his family signed up as extras in White Noise, a film based on a 1985 novel by Don DeLillo about a family fleeing their home after a train crash casts a cloud of chemical waste over their town. Fast forward to 3 February 2023 and the film hits “too close to home” for Ratner to watch, he tells CNN, after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, forcing Ratner’s family and hundreds of other residents of East Palestine to evacuate the town. The authorities diverted the contents of five train-car tankers into a trench to be burned off to avoid an explosion. But while the evacuation order has been lifted after air and water screening, Ratner says people are still worried about longer-term health and environmental risks – among them the real Erin Brockovich (remember her?), who’s accused the White House of turning a blind eye. 


Tug of war
On 9 February, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky said he had warned Moldova of a Russian plot to bring down the former Soviet state’s pro-Western government. Yesterday, Moldova’s president Maia Sandu publicly accused Moscow of planning to use saboteurs from Russia, Montenegro, Belarus and Serbia to spark protests across her country and overthrow its government. In between, the country’s prime minister resigned, blaming crises caused by Russian aggression including soaring inflation. And Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the West was turning Moldova into “the next Ukraine”. The US said reports of a plot had not been confirmed, but it was “certainly not outside the bounds of Russian behaviour”.  

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Paul Caruana Galizia

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Jess Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Getty Images, Gene J Puskar/AP/Shutterstock

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