Prince’s lawsuit questions media’s methods

From the editor's desk

I often have conversations with well-meaning callers offering news tips they believe could lead to a good investigative story about someone they think is doing something, well, shady.

Sometimes I might agree. But sharing a story with the public requires so much more than just a news tip or a hunch. It requires independent verification and conversations (or honest attempts at conversations) with all parties involved.

What “tipsters” often don’t understand is journalists, unlike law enforcement, do not have subpoena power. We can request information from private people or businesses, but unless it’s a so-called “public document,” we are not guaranteed access.

Now, it would not be illegal nor even unethical for a journalist to hire a private investigator to help garner needed information, but that rarely happens. It is expensive and, frankly, private investigators generally face the same limitations as journalists in gathering information. To be clear, in my 25 years as a journalist, I never once involved a private investigator in a story.

I write this column as England’s Prince Harry testifies in a London courtroom, attempting to prove the Daily Mirror tabloid unlawfully snooped into his life.

Harry says tabloid publishers invaded his privacy by eavesdropping on voicemails and hiring private investigators to report on the smallest details of his life, causing him great emotional turmoil.

According to The Associated Press, The Duke of Sussex said he was highly suspicious of how reporters obtained information about him for stories from 1996 to 2011. He said journalists used burner phones and destroyed records, relying on evidence proven in other cases.

“I believe that phone hacking was at an industrial scale across at least three of the papers at the time,” he testified.

But, so far, it appears evidence to support his claim is lacking.

Defense lawyer Andrew Green asked if Harry was aware of any evidence indicating his phone was hacked over those 15 years.

“No,” Harry said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m here.”

Sure, it might be true. But without verification, the case is in question.

Harry is on a mission to reform the British media, and the phone hacking allegations are central to his legal battles against publishers.

As of this writing, the outcome remains in question.

Ironically, Harry’s testimony, in and of itself, became a spectacle for the U.K.’s media. That’s because he is the first senior member of the royal family to testify in court in more than 130 years.

Harry blames paparazzi for causing the car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana, and he said intrusions by journalists led him and his wife, Meghan, to flee to the U.S. in 2020 and leave royal life behind.

His lawyer said he wasn’t on a vendetta against the media, but is seeking accountability.

In court, Green asked if Harry really thought journalists would risk getting caught phone hacking after a News of the World reporter and a private investigator went to prison for such activity in 2007.

“I believe the risk is worth the reward for them,” Harry answered, according to the AP.

Harry’s lawyer, David Sherborne, grilled former Daily Mirror royal correspondent Jane Kerr, whose byline appears on several of the 33 stories cited in Harry’s lawsuit.

“I don’t recall ever instructing anyone to do anything unlawful or knowing they were doing anything unlawful,” Kerr said.

In a witness statement, Kerr said Mirror Group had acknowledged instructing one investigator, Jonathan Stafford, to unlawfully obtain private information, and that her name appeared in records relating to him.

“I had no reason to believe that the practices Stafford engaged in were unlawful nor did I instruct him to undertake such practices,” she said.

Harry’s skepticism of the press included suggestions that anonymous sources were fabricated and extended to people quoted by name.

It’s true the public often questions legitimacy of anonymous sources, which is why I personally discourage using unnamed sources. Sometimes, however, anonymity is imperative. In my newsroom, we make the use of anonymous sources very, very rare.

Testimony in the ongoing case is interesting. Undoubtedly, “royal watchers” and journalists alike will be watching closely.


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