Who wants Prince Harry to edit the press?
The Duke of Sussex’s courtroom ‘victory’ over the Mirror Group newspapers is nothing to celebrate.
Why on Earth has there been rejoicing in liberal media circles about Prince Harry’s courtroom ‘victory’ over Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), publishers of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People? There is nothing to celebrate about a royal using the courts to punish the news media for reporting uncomfortable truths, as part of his self-declared ‘mission’ to ‘reform’ – aka tame and sanitise – the UK’s unruly tabloid press.
High Court judge Mr Justice Fancourt ruled on Friday that, between 1996 and 2010, MGN had published several stories about Harry obtained by unlawful means, including phone-hacking, and awarded the Duke of Sussex ‘modest’ damages of £140,600. The Guardian smugly wondered whether, ‘After Harry’s phone-hacking victory, is it last orders for the tabloid top brass?’, such as former Mirror-editor-turned-TV-pundit Piers Morgan, whom the judge declared had known about the phone-hacking. In response, Morgan angrily denied ordering any hacking. He also quite reasonably observed that ‘Prince Harry’s outrage at media intrusion into the private lives of the royal family is only matched by his own ruthless, greedy and hypocritical enthusiasm for doing it himself’.
Whatever anybody thinks of the individuals involved, this case is about much more than Prince Harry vs Piers Morgan. It is the latest precedent-setting battle in a wider war that raises crucial issues about the freedom of the press to publish and be damned, the power of the courts to control the news and the danger all this poses to democracy.
Even in its own terms, last week’s verdict in court was hardly the triumph for Prince Harry that some reports suggested. Harry’s lawyers originally claimed that 148 stories published by Mirror Group Newspapers between 1996 and 2010 were obtained through unlawful means. The court looked at 33 of these old stories, of which the judge found 15 to be the result of unlawful activity. Mr Justice Fancourt ruled that Harry’s phone had been hacked to a ‘modest extent’ and that ‘a good deal of the oppressive behaviour of the press towards the duke over the years was not unlawful at all’.
Even that qualified verdict, however, seemed like a generous interpretation of the evidence Harry and his legal team had offered in court back in June. As MGN’s barrister pointed out at the start of the hearing: ‘There’s no evidence to support a finding that any mobile phone owned or used by the Duke of Sussex was hacked. Zilch, zero, nil, de nada, niente, nothing.’ Appearing in the witness box, Harry himself was asked if he had any evidence to support his claims. ‘No’, said Prince Harry, ‘that’s part of the reason I’m here, my lord’. Which, as was noted on spiked at the time, ‘sounds like a novel basis on which to launch a multimillion-pound court case: sue first, look for evidence later’.
The gormless impression Harry made in court attracted widespread ridicule. But, as we also observed, the ridiculous prince remained ‘deluded and dangerous’, as the ‘poster boy for a powerful elitist lobby that fears and loathes the popular media and the populace who consume it’.
That powerful lobby is now celebrating and smelling blood, after the judge ruled in Harry’s favour on those 15 old gossipy stories. There are demands, led by the prince in his post-verdict statement and backed by a troupe of score-settling luvvies, for the police to launch criminal investigations, for crown prosecutors to bring charges and for the media to be purged of all those named in the case. It is a witch-hunt aiming to burn ‘tabloid culture’ at the stake and thus purify public life, by ensuring the popular media only report the news that dukes and celebrity divas deem respectable and ‘responsible’.
There are several good reasons why anybody who hopes to live in something approximating a free society should oppose the elitist mission to control and sanitise the popular media.
Freedom of the press is the lifeblood of a democratic society. In Britain, it has had to be defended hard ever since the system of crown licensing, under which nothing could be published without royal permission, was abolished in 1695. The last thing we need 300-odd years later is for a prince to try to impose a modern version of royal licensing and effectively appoint himself editor of the news.
Press freedom, the liberty to publish and be damned, is also the practical expression of our freedom of speech, without which that most fundamental liberty would be useless. This is often forgotten even by some who claim to champion the right to be offensive, yet seem to think that freedom should apply to Cambridge-educated comedians, but not to tabloid journalists.
Press freedom, like all aspects of free speech, is also indivisible. You must defend it for all, or for none at all. During the long years of the tabloid-bashing crusade, attention has focussed on the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids, the Sun and the late News of the World. Left-liberal Murdochphobic campaigners were happy to turn a blind eye to whatever went on at the Labour Party-supporting Mirror. Amid the celebrations of Harry’s ‘victory’, concern has been expressed that the courts are now punishing the Mirror, which one veteran woke columnist defended as ‘an all-too-rare non-Tory newspaper’.
Those on the left who want to pick and choose which parts of the press they deem fit for freedom might like to remember what the young Karl Marx wrote on the subject of press freedom almost two centuries ago. In the first articles he published in a German newspaper, Marx concluded that ‘you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose with a free press?’ If freedom is to mean anything, we will have to endure the sanctimonious tone of the liberal media – and they have to put up with the scurrilous, troublemaking, ‘thorny’ tabloids.
The condemnations of ‘unlawful behaviour’ by the news media should also be treated advisedly. The phone-hacking practised in the past (which really involved listening to voicemails, in the days when famous people failed to change their phone passwords from factory settings) was illegal and nobody has tried to defend it. But countless important news stories have also involved journalists using underhand and even unlawful methods to obtain the facts that somebody powerful wants hidden. Whether to use such investigative methods is always a matter of editorial judgement, for which those involved will themselves be judged. But we must insist that underhand does not always mean below the belt. Investigative journalism is already under dire threat and does not need any more legal hoops to jump through.
There are even broader issues at stake here. For instance, why should it be accepted that one High Court judge has the Solomon-like power to rule on what news is or is not fit to be reported, read or heard? And what does it say about British democracy when judge-imposed privacy laws, which have never been passed by our elected representatives in parliament, can be deployed by the rich and powerful to suppress uncomfortable truths?
Prince Harry’s post-verdict statement declared last Friday to be ‘a great day for truth’. A good day for ‘his truth’, maybe. For those of us who believe in free speech and democracy, however, it was another dark day in the British courts.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.
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