An article in the Mail on Sunday which alleged Prince Harry was trying to keep his legal claim against the Home Office secret contained some words that were defamatory in meaning, a high court judge has ruled in the first stage of the prince’s libel claim.
The Duke of Sussex launched the claim against Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL) days after the Mail on Sunday (MoS) published an article about his legal challenge to the Home Office decision not to allow him to personally pay for police protection for himself and his family while in the UK.
The article, published online and in print on 19 and 20 February respectively, was titled: “How Harry tried to keep his legal fight over bodyguards secret… then minutes after MoS broke story his PR machine tried to put positive spin on the dispute.”
In a written judgment published on FridayMr Justice Nicklin rejected an argument by the prince that the article accused him of lying, saying the article was clearly alleging that he was “spinning” facts, which the “hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader” would be able to distinguish from lying.
However, he added: “It may be possible to ‘spin’ facts in a way that does not mislead, but the allegation being made in the article was very much that the object was to mislead the public. That supplies the necessary element to make the meanings defamatory at common law.”
The ruling is a boost for the prince in his libel claim against ANL and means the onus will now be on the MoS to justify publication of the defamatory words when the case goes to full trial.
Nicklin wrote that the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the article was that Harry “was responsible for public statements, issued on his behalf, which claimed that he was willing to pay for police protection in the UK, and that his legal challenge was to the government’s refusal to allow him to do so, whereas the true position, as revealed in documents filed in the legal proceedings, was that he had only made the offer to pay after the proceedings had commenced; and as such, the claimant was responsible for attempting to mislead and confuse the public as to the true position, which was ironic given that he now held a public role in tackling ‘misinformation’.”
He said these meanings were defamatory as was a passage which suggested that Harry was “seeking unjustifiably wide confidentiality restrictions on court proceedings”.
Nicklin said: “I should reiterate that the decision made in this judgment is solely concerned with the objective meaning of the article published by the defendant for the purposes of the claimant’s defamation claim. This is very much the first phase in a libel claim. The next step will be for the defendant to file a defense to the claim. It will be a matter for determination later in the proceedings whether the claim succeeds or fails, and if so on what basis.”
Harry, 37, is also bringing privacy claims against News Group Newspapers, which publishes the Sun, and Mirror Group Newspapers, now Reach, which publishes the Mirror, over alleged phone hacking and unlawful information gathering.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism