The publishers of the Mirror newspaper carried out “unlawful activities” on an “industrial scale”, it was claimed in London’s High Court on Wednesday at the start of a lawsuit brought by Prince Harry and three other celebrities alleging phone hacking by the media group.
David Sherborne, the barrister representing Prince Harry, said senior executives at the media group including Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, had known about the use of illegal information-gathering methods.
Sherborne claimed the group “left morality at the door” and illegal acts “were carried out on an industrial scale over a period of about 20 years”.
The High Court heard that the media group, which is defending the case, had apologised to Prince Harry for using a private investigator to target him at a London nightclub in 2004.
Mirror Group Newspapers said in written arguments that there was a payment record of £75 from The People to a private investigator in February 2004 relating to “inquiries made regarding Harry at Chinawhite”.
“It is admitted that this represented an instruction to engage in UIG [unlawful information gathering], and MGN unreservedly apologises and accepts that the DOS [Duke of Sussex] is entitled to appropriate compensation for it,” said Andrew Green KC, the barrister representing Mirror Group.
Sherborne told the High Court that the four claimants would show the breadth of the Mirror Group’s unlawful activity.
One claimant, Coronation Street actor Nikki Sanderson, was targeted by a private investigator instructed by the media group when she was just 15, the court heard.
Sherborne told the High Court that Prince Harry had been targeted for years: “We all remember the image of him walking behind his mother’s coffin. From that moment as a schoolboy and from his career in the army and as a young adult he was — it is quite clear — subjected to the most intrusive methods of obtaining his personal information,” the barrister said.
He added: “Prince or not — it was blatantly unlawful and the illegal methods used by the defendants to get every piece of information about life away from his royal duties was quite frankly appalling.”
The barrister claimed that £9.7mn was spent by Mirror Group on private investigators between 1996 and 2011.
“This demonstrates that the TM [Trinity Mirror] Board (which was aggressively seeking to cut costs and save money during this period) must have been aware of these activities, which were recognised as unlawful by senior members of MGN and TM management,” Sherborne claimed in written arguments.
The Mirror Group argued the lawsuits have been brought too late and said the board and executives knew nothing about such unlawful activities.
Green said the group “maintains that claimants cannot now recover compensation for any injury caused by publication of the articles in respect of which their claims are time-barred”.
He added: “There is no evidence, or no sufficient evidence, of voicemail interception in any of these four claims. That central allegation is therefore denied in each of the claims.”
The Mirror Group said that “scattergun allegations are apparently made against every member of the board serving over 20 years”. But, it added, the claimants “have not provided any direct evidence” of any board member “making a false or dishonest statement” about their knowledge of unlawful information gathering.
It said that, by contrast, MGN had provided evidence from board members denying any such knowledge. Morgan has always denied being aware of phone hacking at The Mirror.
The Mirror Group also denied in its written filings that £9.7mn was spent on private investigators.
Many of the articles objected to by Prince Harry came from information “disclosed by or on behalf of royal households or members of the royal family; from information and photographs sold to the newspaper by freelance journalists and news agencies”, the Mirror Group added.
The hearing is the second civil trial on phone hacking faced by Mirror Group. The company paid out £1.2mn in damages to eight victims of phone hacking by journalists after a civil trial in 2015.
Along with Prince Harry, the other three claimants are Sanderson, Coronation Street actor Michael Turner and Fiona Wightman, former wife of the comedian Paul Whitehouse.