The Duke of Sussex has brought a bid to have the publisher of The Mail on Sunday’s defence to his High Court libel claim thrown out.
Harry, 38, is suing Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) over an article about his separate legal proceedings against the Home Office regarding security arrangements for himself and his family when they are in the UK.
The story was published online and in the newspaper in February 2022 under the headline: “Exclusive: How Prince Harry tried to keep his legal fight with the government over police bodyguards a secret… then – just minutes after the story broke – his PR machine tried to put a positive spin on the dispute”.
ANL is contesting the claim, arguing the article expressed an “honest opinion” and did not cause “serious harm” to his reputation.
The duke’s challenge against the Home Office concerns a decision of the Executive Committee for the Protection of Royalty and Public Figures (Ravec) over his security in February 2020, after being told he would no longer be given the “same degree” of personal protective security when visiting.
Harry’s legal team for the judicial review argue the security arrangements set out in a letter from Ravec, and their application when he visited the UK in June 2021, were invalid due to “procedural unfairness” because he was not given an opportunity to make “informed representations beforehand”.
However, lawyers for the Home Office previously said Ravec was entitled to reach the decision it did, which is that Harry’s security arrangements will be considered on a “case by case” basis.
At a preliminary hearing in the libel claim on Friday, the High Court in London heard the duke’s bid to strike out ANL’s “honest opinion” defence or grant judgment in his favour on it.
Justin Rushbrooke KC, for Harry, said the Mail on Sunday articles “purported to reveal, in sensational terms” that information from court documents filed by the duke “contradicted public statements he had previously made about his willingness to pay for police protection for himself and his family whilst in the UK”.
The court was told that the claim involves two statements provided to journalists in January 2022 on Harry’s behalf, one that could be quoted publicly and a second to be paraphrased as background information, over the duke’s decision to bring legal action against the Home Office.
The court heard that in the public statement, Harry and his family were described as “unable to return to his home” due to the lack of police protection needed in the UK.
The statement, which was covered by the PA news agency, continued: “The duke first offered to pay personally for UK police protection for himself and his family in January of 2020 at Sandringham.
“That offer was dismissed. He remains willing to cover the cost of security, as not to impose on the British taxpayer.”
Mr Rushbrooke said in written submissions that ANL’s defence to the libel claim “rests upon two provably false premises” relating to the statements.
The first was a suggestion that the duke had allegedly made a false claim over his willingness to pay for police protection in the UK, while the second was he had allegedly stated his case against the Home Office was over a refusal to let him pay for this security.
Mr Rushbrooke told the court: “It’s absolutely obvious that this statement makes no claim that the claimant made an offer to Ravec or the Home Office or that his judicial review proceedings were to challenge a refusal to accept it.”
He said that Harry’s public statement “expressly says” he first offered to pay in January 2020 during a meeting at Sandringham.
The barrister later added: “He did not know who was on Ravec or whether or not or by whom the offer had been passed on to Ravec.
“He self-evidently believed or he assumed it had been brought to Ravec’s attention.”
Mr Rushbrooke later said that Harry’s public statement about the offer was “completely clear”, but claimed that reporting by the PA news agency had got “the wrong end of the stick” in saying the legal action was over a Home Office decision not to allow him to pay.
“That appears to have been the starting point for much of, or possibly all of, the publicity that followed that the defendant relies upon,” the barrister told the court.
Andrew Caldecott KC, for ANL, said that the bid to end their defence without a trial was “wholly without merit” and that “the whole case is built on sand”.
He said in written submissions: “The claimant was responsible for press statements that said he would pay for security when he had never expressed any willingness to pay until after the judicial review.”
Mr Caldecott later claimed that in an April 2020 email to Sir Edward Young, the Queen’s private secretary at the time, Harry “made it clear we couldn’t afford private security until we were able to earn”.
The barrister added that Harry’s offer at Sandringham was presented “as an offer to ‘pay or contribute’ made to the family, not to Government”.
He continued: “The press statement then refers to ‘another attempt at negotiations’ being ‘also rejected’.
“Taken alone, that must suggest an attempt at negotiations with Government.”
Mr Caldecott also told the court there were “fundamental flaws” in Harry’s legal team’s approach to the case.
“It would be extraordinary if large swathes of the media had a collective misreading of the press statement,” Mr Caldecott continued.
He added that “nothing was done to correct” the allegedly “misleading publicity which the whole world received”.
The court was told that a tweet from Omid Scobie, co-author of the biography Finding Freedom about the duke and his wife, about the judicial review was part of ANL’s defence.
The barrister later said that the PA news agency, formerly known as the Press Association, did “get the right end of the stick” in its coverage.
Mr Caldecott said: “If the Press Association’s conclusion was bonkers then it may be that the honest commentator should ignore it.”
The hearing concluded on Friday afternoon, with Mr Justice Nicklin giving a ruling at a later date.