Prince Harry May Deliver the Next Huge Blow to Murdoch’s Empire
The two tracks of Rupert Murdoch’s debasement of journalism have converged into one extremely costly crisis for him. It’s clear that Murdoch’s last years as a media tycoon will be spent paying for his criminalizing of print journalism and his primetime television assault on truth.
Prince Harry’s onslaught in a London court on Murdoch’s British tabloids exposes the long and unstinting drain on the Murdoch purse of 16 years of litigation to settle claims by many thousands of victims of phone hacking. Coming on the heels of the $787.5-million payout by Fox News to settle the Dominion defamation case it means that what were once viewed as cash cows have turned into fiscal black holes—more cases against Fox are in the pipeline and paying off hacking victims could still take years.
This may not resemble repentance but it’s surely not the way he wanted to end a life building a world-straddling media empire.
Moreover, Harry’s attack on the “grotesque and sadistic” London tabloids is likely to bring more reputational harm. Murdoch’s lawyers know this. Harry’s refusal to settle out of court—as thousands of other hacking victims have done because they lack his kind of wealth to support protracted litigation—means that damning documents uncovered during discovery would suddenly be made public in court.
“News Group Newspapers (NGN) cannot allow some of those documents to see the light of day” a person familiar with the case told the Daily Beast.
One specific personal target picked out by Harry is Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s top newspaper executive in the U.K.
NGN have always contended that hacking and illicit blagging of personal material was limited to the now-defunct Sunday tabloid the News of the World, and did not include the top-selling daily The Sun. Brooks edited the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, and The Sun from 2003 to 2009.
The criminal case for hacking brought against the News of the World in 2013 at Britain’s most storied criminal court, the Old Bailey, resulted in the jailing of its editor, Andy Coulson, for 18 months. Coulson had edited the paper from 2003 to 2007.
Brooks, who had been on trial for a more serious charge, a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, was found not guilty and set free.
But Prince Harry—and other litigants—claim that hacking was widespread at The Sun during Brooks’s editorship. At the Old Bailey, Brooks and her defense team persuaded the jury that phone hacking had never attracted her attention, even though she and Coulson had been lovers for six years.
Royalist is The Daily Beast’s newsletter for all things royal and Royal Family. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every Sunday.
The person familiar with Harry’s case claims that lawyers have now discovered considerable evidence that hacking did continue at The Sun under Brooks and says “She’s exposed and what’s strange is that she’s running this litigation. It’s unusual for a company to have someone with an interest having a role in deciding the legal strategy.
“She’s got a conflict of interest. Is it right for a company and its shareholders to allow someone with a conflict of interest to decide how a case is run?”
Ironically, because the News of the World was killed off because of the repugnance of the hacking scandal, it is The Sun that bears the costs of the settlements. That has wiped out any chance of the paper making a profit. In 2020 the legal costs were 80 million pounds and, in 2022, 51 million.
It’s striking that in both the Fox News and tabloid cases Murdoch’s driving priority has been to prevent—at all costs—anyone getting a full picture of how cynical his producers, anchors, editors, and journalists were as they broke all norms of media integrity.
The hacking settlements all include an agreement by the victims not to disclose how much they received; when it seemed in the Fox case that full disclosure in court would go beyond the already jaw-dropping revelations made in Dominion’s discovery process Murdoch finally caved and settled.
In Harry’s London case the NGN lawyers have, for the second time, argued that a statute of limitations should apply because the cases go so far back.
In a hearing last year they said, “…now is the appropriate time to ensure that any intended claims are brought within a reasonable time and that the slow drip-feed of the evidence—which, on the claimants’ approach could last many more years, possibly another decade—is brought to a conclusion.”
However, as the cases mounted, more and more people found out that they, too had been hacked—sometimes as a result of what had happened to friends, or remembering that there had been hundreds of unexplained calls to their phones.
The fourth wave of cases began in 2019, with a cut-off date of September 2022. It is reckoned that there were 220 cases in this wave and around 30 have been settled. Some of these involve claims against The Sun, not the News of the World. Earlier, the actress Sienna Miller was one of those who settled a Sun claim because, she said, she did not have the financial resources to force a court case.
The legal costs are not only a burden for claimants. For MGN they mount up with each wave. They are reckoned to have already surpassed 200 million pounds and it is said that Murdoch expects that the final price of the hacking to him, including the legal costs and settlements, could reach a billion pounds, about $1.25 billion. That is largely driven by the anxiety to keep the true extent of the crime being revealed.
The person familiar with the cases says that among evidence that has been concealed is the destruction of emails and hard drives and boxes of documents removed from the newspaper offices. Some of the evidence found in discovery includes revelations about collusion between the journalists and the Metropolitan Police, a relationship already known but which may have been more corrupt than previously revealed.
Rebekah Brooks is one of Murdoch’s favorite executives, regarded almost as a daughter for her loyalty and avidity as a ruthless tabloid professional. In his classic account of the hacking scandal, Hack Attack, the journalist Nick Davies said that Brooks was known as “the beating heart of the Devil.” When Davies worked for The Guardian, Brooks threatened his editor that she would run a story about his having a love child. There was no love child, and the story did not run, but it was part of a Brooks doctrine to “monster” critics of the Murdoch empire wherever they surfaced.
One particularly disingenuous part of her defense in the Old Bailey trial was the idea that although hacking in both tabloids had reached industrial scale she could remain unaware of it. The hacking, backed up by gumshoe snooping by private detectives, was a large part of the papers’ budgets. Murdoch tracked all budgets with a gimlet eye, and Brooks was a trusted manager.
To buy the idea that she missed all of this you would need to believe that she was either negligent or incompetent, and she was neither. Found not guilty at the trial, she and Murdoch had reason to believe that the true scale of the hacking crime as a part of a deliberately corrupted editorial ethic that turned in huge profits while it lasted would never be disclosed. That looks highly unlikely now.