Wednesday 7 June 2023

Prince Harry in Court

Prince Harry was in the witness box again for the second day of his litigation against Mirror Group newspapers. Having refused to settle over phone hacking claims like many other celebrities have done, he is there ostensibly to stand up for privacy and take one of the more notorious media organisations to the cleaners. He alleges journalists working for Mirror Group newspapers had, over a period of years, obtained voice messages illegally and used them to run a slew of exclusives about his private life. 33 such articles are at the heart of the case. They deny it and say their stories were obtained from passers-by, friends, acquaintances, etc. A line that might have credibility had they and other papers not spent tens of millions paying off disgruntled parties who had accused them of doing the same.

There are a couple of things of interest beyond the salacious details avidly consumed by royal-watchers. The first is the point oft made before Harry was due in court: the fact he's the first senior royal in the witness box in 130 years. Previously appearing was the then Prince of Wales and future Edward VII, or "Bertie" as he was affectionately known, and questioned in a slander case involving an illegal game of baccarat. The difference between then and now is he was called as a witness and compelled to attend. Harry, along with several other litigants, initiated this action.

It's this that makes matters highly irregular. The royals are not just supposed to be above the pettiness of the press, but at a far remove from it and commonplace affairs. At the pinnacle of the state, the constitutional monarchy is supposed to embody it. In a weird sor of way, they are us. And that means neutrality where day-to-day matters are concerned. In the present set up, the monarchy is an anti-democratic check on unruly aspirations incoming governments may have, and a guarantor the means of violence would be employed to serve the status quo in the unlikely event of a revolutionary upheaval. But all this is obscured by protocol, bowing and scraping, and the enthusiastic support of the official left for this state of affairs. One of the reasons why the Palace have taken such umbrage at the comings and goings of Harry and Meghan is their refusal to be bound by the straitjacket of expectation and the hypocritical rubbish demanded of them. The cutting off, so ostentatiously demonstrated at the Coronation, is necessary to close the window Harry has opened onto Palace intrigue and familial relations and repair the distance. By attacking Mirror Group through the courts, however justified Harry's action is, his behaviour is just another episode of his violating constitutional neutrality. He humanises the institution, and doing so makes it appear historical, frail, and possibly impermanent.

This isn't the only reason why we'll hear nothing from royalty during the case. Except the usual run of puff stories and good news with which we're invited to play the game of compare and contrast. The silence and being seen not to comment is their way of keeping the papers onside. The King can remember well how he and his family were damaged by the press campaign in the 1990s, that is before their knight on a white charger galloped in and helped save their bacon. No comment, not even letting an off-the-record "Palace source" hold forth on the case, helps keep the papers respectful and cooperative. Because with the royals looking at a long-term decline not dissimilar to other props of the establishment, they need continual good press if their efforts to re-legitimise the institution and secure its future until the end of the century are to bear fruit.

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