Former Mirror editor Piers Morgan “lies at the heart” of allegations of unlawful information-gathering at the newspaper company, the High Court trial brought by Prince Harry and other celebrities has heard.
On the trial’s second day, the Duke of Sussex’s lawyer outlined the complaints against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), which include alleged phone hacking and the use of private investigators.
Alongside the duke, Coronation Street actors Nikki Sanderson and Michael Le Vell, and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman have been selected by the judge as “test cases”. If successful, the court could then consider claims by singer Cheryl, ex-footballer Ian Wright and actor Ricky Tomlinson.
David Sherborne, for Harry, told the court on Thursday that one of the “most seriously troubling features” of their cases was the allegation that those responsible for management and finances of the company “were well aware of what was going on”.
“Even people you would expect to be ensuring honesty … [were] themselves so bound up in this wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s no wonder it was so widespread … At all levels, the defendant’s organisation was concealing unlawful activity because it was well aware of how damaging it was.”
In written submissions, Mr Sherborne continued: “It is inconceivable that this information, which was readily available on MGN’s system, was not known by the editors, Piers Morgan, Tina Weaver and Mark Thomas, the managing editors, and the legal department … and the board.
“Despite that, neither the legal department nor the board took any action to prevent the continued use of such techniques by MGN journalists.”
Mr Sherborne insisted Morgan was “at the heart of” claims against the publisher, which apologised to Harry on Wednesday over an instance involving a private investigator but contests the other claims.
“What we have, we say, is the direct involvement of Morgan in a number of these incidents,” the lawyer said. “Morgan lies right at the heart of this in a number of ways. He was a very hands-on editor, also very closely connected to the board.”
Outlining one of the more than 200 articles – published between 1991 and 2011 – which are reported to be included in the complaint, Mr Sherborne alleged that a front-page Mirror article in 1999, which claimed Prince Michael of Kent was in £2.5m debt to a bank, had been “obtained illegally”.
Noting that Morgan had been Mirror editor at the time, Mr Sherborne continued: “The story had been published with sufficient confidence in the face of a denial from Prince Michael himself.”
Upon the prince raising a legal complaint against MGN, Morgan had said the allegation came from “an impeccable source who has an intimate knowledge” of the royal’s finances, Mr Sherborne said.
He added: “Morgan, and the MGN lawyers he consulted before writing this letter, knew full well that the information had been obtained unlawfully and that the criminal law had in fact been breached, and the ‘impeccable source’ they referred to was in fact [private investigator Jonathan] Rees.”
MGN later settled Prince Michael’s claim, agreeing to publish an apology and pay his legal costs, Mr Sherborne said.
The publisher’s lawyer Andrew Green KC accused the celebrity claimants of making “serious allegations” of dishonesty with legal arguments that “are far from adequate”.
“The claimants have not provided any direct evidence of a member of the board or legal department making a false or dishonest statement,” he said. “By contrast, MGN has provided witness evidence from board members, which the claimants are in no position to gainsay, denying any such knowledge.
There is no attempt to confine the allegations to specific board members or time periods. Rather, scattergun allegations are apparently made against every member of the board serving over 20 years, and no clear or specific inferential basis is particularised.”
Mr Green said MGN’s legal department “generally did not know about journalists’ sources but rather its lawyers were consulted where journalists considered it necessary”.
More generally, he accused the four celebrity claimants of providing “barely any evidence” for their “extraordinarily wide claims”, while arguing that some cases have been brought too late.
Later on Thursday, the Mirror’s publisher told the High Court the Duke of Sussex did not have an “expectation of privacy” over a report he was allegedly punished by the King for dressing up as a Nazi.
In the document put into the case by the publisher’s lawyers, the court heard that one of the articles in Harry’s claim, published in the Sunday Mirror in February 2005, said that the duke had been made to do farm work by Charles – the then-Prince of Wales – after wearing a Nazi uniform at a party.
Mr Green also denied the details in the article had been sourced unlawfully or through phone hacking.
On Wednesday, the BBC published an interview with Morgan filmed in March, in which he addressed some of the claims raised in Thursday’s hearing.
“I never hacked a phone, I wouldn’t even know how, he told presenter Amol Rajan. “There’s no evidence I knew anything about any of this, I never told anybody to hack a phone.”
The trial continues.