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Prince Harry wins court victory against tabloids in phone hacking case

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Britain's Prince Harry won a court victory today against some of the tabloid newspapers that have hounded him for much of his life. A London judge says the Duke of Sussex was the victim of phone hacking, the now largely abandoned practice of intercepting private phone conversations or voicemail. In their heyday, British tabloids competed with one another to obtain the most private conversations of the most public figures and made lots of money doing it. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here's Prince Harry in the audiobook version of his memoir, "Spare," describing how the British tabloids treated him as a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "SPARE")

PRINCE HARRY: My existence was just fun and games to these people. I wasn't a human being to them. I wasn't a 14-year-old boy hanging on by his fingernails. I was a cartoon character, a glove puppet to be manipulated and mocked for fun.

FRAYER: On top of his memoir, Harry, in recent years, has done a Netflix special and an Oprah interview in which he talked about feeling vulnerable in the face of what he calls a paparazzi frenzy aimed at him and his wife, Meghan Markle. All of his life, he says, the tabloids have tortured him, even as a child. He felt paranoid, like someone was always spying on him, he said. Today a court in London essentially ruled that...

ELEANOR MILLS: Harry was right. He wasn't paranoid. His phone was being hacked.

FRAYER: Eleanor Mills is a former editor at London's Sunday Times newspaper. She says the High Court has vindicated Harry. He sued the publisher of the Daily Mirror newspaper for hacking his voicemail to get scoops about his grief over his mother Princess Diana's death, about romances he had as a teenager, even about a sports injury which no one outside Harry's immediate family and friends knew about, Mills explains.

MILLS: Harry was having huge trust issues with those in his inner circle because these stories kept appearing in the tabloid newspapers, and he didn't understand what was going on.

FRAYER: The articles date back to the 1990s and early 2000s, the heyday of the British tabloids' power, Mills recalls.

MILLS: The bestselling scoop that you could have back in those times was something about the royal family. Princess Diana was the golden goose as far as newspapers were concerned 'cause she sold so many copies, but her sons, William and Harry, also were very, very good for business.

FRAYER: The judge ruled in Harry's favor in 15 of the 33 articles he sued over and awarded him around $180,000 in damages. This is one of several phone hacking lawsuits that have come a generation after this practice was made obsolete not by any crisis of conscience among newspaper editors but more by evolving technology and declining tabloid budgets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID SHERBORNE: Patience is, in fact, a virtue, especially in the face of vendetta journalism.

FRAYER: These are Harry's own words read aloud outside the courtroom today by his lawyer, David Sherborne.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERBORNE: Today is a great day for truth as well as accountability.

FRAYER: In his ruling, the judge said phone hacking was widespread and habitual and that newspaper executives were not only aware of it but covered it up. And he mentioned one of them by name - Piers Morgan. He's a TV personality now, but he used to be a U.K. newspaper editor of the Daily Mirror in the 1990s and early 2000s, when this very phone hacking took place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PIERS MORGAN: I've never hacked a phone or told anybody else to hack a phone.

FRAYER: That's Morgan on his London doorstep this afternoon with a crowd of reporters outside. He's been one of the biggest critics of Harry and his wife. He's called them spoiled brats, made fun of their mental health issues and called for them to be stripped of their titles of Duke and Duchess, though today he actually used Harry's title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORGAN: As for him saying this is a good day for truth, the Duke has been repeatedly exposed in recent years as someone who wouldn't know the truth if it slapped him around his California-tanned face.

FRAYER: Left unsaid is what happens to the newspaper executives, Morgan among them, that a London court has said were complicit. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK WIZ'S "XYLOPHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Fatima Al-Kassab