Prince Harry becomes the first British royal to testify in court in 130 years

Prince Harry becomes the first British royal to testify in court in 130 years

Prince Harry will become the first senior British royal in 130 years to give evidence in court, as part of his lawsuit against U.K. tabloid publisher Mirror Group.

Culture & Entertainment

LONDON — Prince Harry is taking his battle with the media to a historic new stage, becoming the first high-ranking member of the British royal family in 130 years to appear as a witness in court.

He took the stand Tuesday in London’s High Court and swore to tell the truth as he gives evidence in his case against the publishers of Britain's Daily Mirror tabloid newspaper. The prince and others have accused Mirror Group Newspapers of obtaining information about them illegally, through phone hacking and other unlawful methods. (The Mirror Group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.)

Though the highly anticipated showdown will see Harry take on those he has accused of going to unlawful lengths in their pursuit of royal scoops, it could also provide new fuel for his public family feud.

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“Prince Harry’s decision to take to the stand is, literally, historic,” historian and royal commentator Sarah Gristwood told NBC News. “The last time a senior royal appeared in the witness box was more than a century ago.”

Allowing himself to be cross-examined is perhaps the riskiest move in Harry’s lifelong campaign against the tabloid press. He holds paparazzi culpable in the 1997 death of his mother, Princess Diana, and has accused the U.K. media of racism in hounding his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which prompted the couple to leave royal life for America.

His testimony promises to be a potentially uncomfortable experience.

'A lot at stake'

Already, the prince has risked the ire of the courts — both legal and public opinion — by failing to show up for the opening day of proceedings on Monday. His lawyer, David Sherborne, said the 38-year-old prince only left California on Sunday evening after celebrating the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Lilibet, and therefore his attendance would be "tricky."

The judge, Timothy Fancourt, said he was "surprised" by Harry's absence — a relative broadside in the understated world of lawyer speak. Mirror Group's lawyer, Andrew Green, said it was "absolutely extraordinary" that Harry was a no-show.

He now faces two days of unstinting questioning by a senior trial lawyer, known as a King’s Counsel, a radical departure from the carefully tailored narrative Harry has been able to present in his Netflix series, his memoir, “Spare,” and assorted amiable interviews.

It might not only bring up new details about Harry and Meghan’s life but also his family’s — including King Charles III and heir Prince William, Harry’s older brother.

And that’s why his testimony is so unusual: Charles, his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, and their family stretching back generations have tended to stick to the “never complain, never explain” mantra — seeking to rise above the maelstrom of public controversies by saying as little as possible, at least on the record.

"You know, the family motto is 'never complain, never explain' — but it's just a motto, and it doesn't really hold," he told Anderson Cooper on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in January.

In taking the stand this week, Harry has torn up this decades-old palace playbook, the latest break with his family and its traditions.

He shows no sign of settling the matter out of court, which his brother did with Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, News Group Newspapers, according to court documents submitted by Harry last month. As a multimillionaire of inherited wealth, Harry can afford a costly legal case — he is also motivated by a decades-old sense of injustice.

“We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health,” Harry said in an interview on “The Late Late Show With James Corden” in February 2021.

“This is toxic,” he added, saying the media had created a “really difficult” environment for the couple.

NBC News royal contributor Katie Nicholl said: “He is set to lose a lot of money if he loses his case, but I don’t think it’s about the money. It is about this crusade, this absolute hell-bent mission to change the media. And I think, for Harry, if he loses, there is a lot at stake in terms of his future, his credibility.”

The last time a senior royal stood up in court was 1891, when Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, gave evidence after one of his opponents in a card game was accused of cheating. Twenty years earlier he was called on to give evidence after a woman said she had an affair with him.

“The disreputable nature of those cases meant Edward’s appearances were taken as evidence of his unsteady character — his mother, Queen Victoria, was certainly horrified,” Gristwood said. She warned that Harry's appearance also "could prove problematic. The royal family have always been intensely aware that they need the press as much as the press needs them."

The prince is perhaps the most high-profile public figure to take action against British newspapers, alleging shady practices such as phone hacking, which usually involves accessing the person’s voicemails, but he is far from the first.

It’s a scandal that exploded in the U.K. in 2011 after it was revealed that the News of the World used these methods to get stories, leading to the newspaper’s closure.

News Group has apologized for the hacking at the now-defunct newspaper.

Over the years dozens of celebrities including actor Hugh Grant and musician Elton John have taken the press to court.

The prince is involved in legal action against three major newspaper publishers, and is one of more than 100 high-profile figures suing Mirror Group Newspapers, which is owned by a company called Reach.

Reach has apologized for one instance in which The Sunday People, the Mirror’s sister title, unlawfully sought information about Harry, but it has denied the other claims and said there is no evidence for them.

The Mirror Group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.

Green, the lawyer for the Mirror, said a substantial number of the articles at issue were of a “breathtaking level of triviality” and that reporters had used public sources and records to obtain information legally, with the exception of a few instances of unlawful information-gathering.