By Brian Cathcart
PRINCE HARRY and Elton John appeared at the London High Court today to witness the latest stage in the case they and others have brought accusing the publisher of the Daily Mail of breaching their privacy, including by hacking their phones.
On the first day of a three- or four-day hearing they heard lawyers for the company, Associated Newspapers – which denies the claims – put forward two arguments: that parts of the case should be struck out because they relied on documents that were confidential and that the whole case should be thrown out because it related to events too long ago.
Counsel for the claimants, David Sherborne, rejected both of these, insisting among other points that the documents were not genuinely confidential and that, in line with the requirements of justice, the claimants had brought their claim as early as was reasonably possible. The hearing resumes tomorrow.
The presence of the prince and music star drew public attention to an unusual hearing at a very early stage in the case, which was brought last October by them and by five others: David Furnish, Elizabeth Hurley, Sadie Frost Law, Simon Hughes and Baroness Doreen Lawrence. Because of the Mail’s objections, the ‘Particulars of Claim’ – the detailed grounds of the complaints – have not yet been made public and the Mail has not presented its own defence.
Most of the first day was taken up with arguments in relation to questions of secrecy and confidentiality, with Associated arguing that in this case these factors should trump openness. The company succeeded in an application to prevent publication of the names of journalists mentioned in the complaint documentation, pending judgment on the matters in this hearing. An order limiting publicity in relation to the contents of the Particulars of Claim remains in place until judgment is given on Associated’s applications.
Once all the arguments have been heard, the judge, Mr Justice Nicklin, is likely to reserve judgment for a few days or weeks. His decision will determine whether the case eventually goes to trial or is halted without further proceedings. One possibility is that he might require the complainants to seek ministerial permission to rely on the allegedly confidential documents, potentially delaying matters by some weeks or months.
The Daily Mail is deeply embarrassed by – and clearly furious about – these proceedings. It has always denied that its journalists illegally hacked phones or intruded in privacy in other illegal ways and these allegations from a very high-profile group of claimants have thrown it on to the back foot.
More than that, the involvement of Baroness Lawrence is a stunning development. The Mail and its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, have long prided themselves in their closeness to the widely-admired mother of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager murdered by a white gang in 1993.
On the limited evidence about her claim that is so far available, it appears she is accusing the paper of spying on her in various ways over a number of years.
Associated is arguing in court that the seven cases all rely to a considerable degree on a document supplied by the company to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards in 2011, and that this document was supplied on terms of confidentiality which should not now be breached.
Sherborne, for the claimants, argued today that the document – parts of which have since been published by a news organisation – is not truly confidential. He will resume on the point tomorrow morning.
For publishers of the Mail to be seeking to prevent the further airing of the document at trial, and for it to have obtained an order preventing the naming of its own journalists, must accentuate its embarrassment. The paper has long associated itself with resistance to judicial secrecy, often asserting that the public’s right to know is paramount.
In a libel case it is currently fighting, brought by Prince Harry, Associated is defending an article that was headlined: ‘Exclusive: How Prince Harry tried to keep his legal fight with the government over police bodyguards a secret…’ The article went on to accuse the prince of ‘seeking far-reaching confidentiality’ and of ‘trying to keep details of his legal battle about police protection private’.
In a statement issued today Associated again ‘categorically denied’ all the claims against it, attacked David Sherborne personally and said of Baroness Lawrence: ‘We are deeply saddened she has been persuaded by this core group to bring this case on the basis of such dubious evidence…’
Edit: A photo agency caption mistakenly named Hugh Grant as a claimant in the court action against Associated Newspapers Limited under a picture used in Byline Investigates court copy. We’d like to point out that Mr Grant is not a claimant in this case.