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FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prince Harry walks outside the High Court, in London
FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prince Harry walks outside the High Court, in London, Britain March 30, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

UK tabloid admits it unlawfully gathered info on Prince Harry as hacking lawsuit begins

LONDON (AP) — The publisher of British tabloid the Daily Mirror acknowledged and apologized Wednesday for unlawfully gathering information about Prince Harry, saying at the outset of a trial over one of his phone hacking lawsuits that the prince was due "appropriate compensation."

The admission of snooping for a 2004 article headlined "Sex on the beach with Harry" may have marked a tiny victory for the Duke of Sussex, but the story in question was not one of the nearly 150 that Harry claimed resulted from unlawful news gathering between 1995 and 2011.

READ MORE: At King Charles' coronation, Prince Harry was an odd man out

The trial that opened in London is Harry's biggest test yet in his legal battle against the British press. He and three other celebrities, including two soap opera actors, are suing the former publisher of the Daily Mirror for alleged misuse of private information.

Harry was not present in court as his attorney, David Sherborne, began his opening statement, saying that unlawful acts were "widespread and habitual" and done on "an industrial scale" by reporters and editors at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People.

"It was a flood of illegality," Sherborne said. "But worse, this flood was being approved by senior executives, managing editors and members of the board."

Invoices and phone records — some so old they came from obsolete Palm Pilots — showed how the news, entertainment, sports, and photo departments relied on investigators plying unscrupulous tactics.

Sherborne said former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan was aware of the hacking and even participated. Morgan has publicly denied involvement in phone hacking.

The activities in question stretch back more than two decades, when journalists and private eyes intercepted voicemails for scoops on members of the royal family, politicians, athletes, celebrities and even crime victims. The scheme advanced from a low-tech hack of punching in default passwords in early days of voicemail to tapping phones, bugging homes and gaining access to medical records.

A scandal erupted when the hacking was revealed.

Publisher Mirror Group Newspapers continued to deny it hacked phones to intercept voicemail messages, and said that Harry and the three others brought their claims beyond a time limit.

READ MORE: Prince Harry says he wants reconciliation with King Charles III and Prince William

But in court papers outlining its defense, the publisher acknowledged "some evidence of the instruction of third parties to engage in other types of UIG (unlawful information gathering)." It said the activity "warrants compensation" but didn't spell out what form that might take.

"MGN unreservedly apologizes for all such instances of UIG, and assures the claimants that such conduct will never be repeated," the court papers said.

The company said its apology was not a tactical move to reduce damages but was done "because such conduct should never have occurred."

The case, the first of the duke's three phone hacking lawsuits to go to trial, threatens to do something he said his family long feared: put a royal on the witness stand to discuss embarrassing revelations.

Harry is expected to testify in person in June, his lawyer has said. It won't be his first time in the High Court, following his surprise appearance last month to observe most of a four-day hearing in one of his other lawsuits.

The prince has waged a war of words against British newspapers in legal claims and in his best-selling memoir "Spare," vowing to make his life's mission reforming the media that he blames for the death of his mother, Princess Diana. She died in a car wreck in Paris in 1997 while trying to evade paparazzi.

Harry breezed through London for Saturday's coronation of his father, King Charles III, before leaving immediately after the ceremony to fly back to California for his son's birthday.

His lawsuits could further roil family relations that have been strained since Harry and his wife, Meghan, left royal life in 2020 and moved to the United States after complaining about racist attitudes from the British press.

Mirror Group and other publishers have primarily defended themselves by asserting that Harry failed to bring his cases within a six-year year time limit. The duke's lawyer has argued that an exception should be applied because publishers actively concealed the skullduggery.

In a stunning revelation last month that dredged up an embarrassing chapter in his father's life, Harry blamed his delay in bringing suit, in part, on his family.

He asserted he was barred from bringing a case against The Sun and other newspapers owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch because of a "secret agreement" — allegedly approved of by Queen Elizabeth II — that called for reaching a private settlement and getting an apology.

He said the deal was to spare the royal family from having to answer questions in court about "private and highly sensitive" information, Harry said in a witness statement against News Group Newspapers.

"The institution was incredibly nervous about this and wanted to avoid at all costs the sort of reputational damage that it had suffered in 1993," he said, alluding to a transcript of a leaked recording — published in the Sunday Mirror — of an intimate conversation his father, then Prince of Wales, had with his paramour, now Queen Camilla, in which he compared himself to a tampon.

READ MORE: Prince Harry says he wants reconciliation with King Charles III and Prince William

Harry said his brother, Prince William, had quietly settled his own hacking claims with News Group for "huge sum of money" in 2020. He also claimed his father had directed palace staff to order him to drop his litigation because it was bad for the family.

Murdoch's company denied there was a "secret agreement" and wouldn't comment on the alleged settlement. The palace hasn't responded to requests for comment.

Harry has alleged that Mirror Group reporters used illegal methods to gather material from his family and friends for 147 articles, but the trial will focus only on 33 stories.

The publisher denied it unlawfully gathered information in almost all those articles, though it said it some instances it has merely "not admitted" allegations.

The one article that promoted the apology was published in Sunday People in February 2004. It described "royal romeo Prince Harry" romancing two "stunning" models at the China Whites nightclub "during his boozy night out."

The publisher said it was clear an investigator had been hired to engage in unlawful activity, though it said the 75 pound ($95) fee suggested little work was done.

"MGN unreservedly apologizes and accepts that the Duke of Sussex is entitled to appropriate compensation for it," attorney Andrew Green wrote.

The newspaper has said the allegations are overstated and Harry is wrong about how its reporters got information, saying they used legal methods for many articles.

In 2015, publishers of The Mirror printed a front-page apology for phone hacking and tripled its victim compensation fund to 12 million pounds ($15 million).

Mirror Group said more than 600 of some 830 claims had been settled. Of the remaining 104 cases, 86 were brought too late to be litigated, it said in court papers.

Harry's co-claimants in the trial are Nikki Sanderson and Michael Turner, best known for their roles on "Coronation Street," and Fiona Wightman, the former wife of comedian Paul Whitehouse.

The lawsuits were combined as a test case that could determine the outcome of hacking claims also made against Mirror Group by former Girls Aloud member Cheryl, the estate of the late singer George Michael, and former soccer player Ian Wright.

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