Prince Harry and allies seek to expand case against Rupert Murdoch empire

LONDON — Prince Harry has long maintained that Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives knew more than they let on about unlawful information-gathering at his British tabloids, the subject of a ruinous scandal over a dozen years ago.

Now, three months after winning a court victory against another media company for phone hacking and other intrusive behavior, Harry has turned his sights back to the 93-year-old executive and his media empire.

This week, the prince and other prominent figures — including actor Hugh Grant and director Guy Ritchie — sought to amend their ongoing lawsuit against Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers. During a three-day hearing at the High Court of Justice in London, their lawyers asserted that Murdoch personally knew about his reporters’ privacy-invading practices much earlier than he had admitted.

Harry’s lawyers are also seeking to change the scope of the lawsuit to include allegations regarding more than a dozen current and former editors and executives at Murdoch’s media empire, whom they claim were aware of or involved in an effort to conceal and destroy evidence of wrongdoing. They include William Lewis, now the publisher and CEO of The Washington Post; Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, another subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp. conglomerate; and James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son who has since left the family business.

The case is scheduled for trial in January 2025. A decision on whether the litigants can expand the lawsuit will probably be made in weeks.

In a statement, a spokesperson for News Group Newspapers called the latest claims a “scurrilous and cynical attack” on its employees’ integrity.

The company apologized in 2011 for the phone-hacking scandal and has been paying financial damages to victims, the statement noted — adding that many of the claims aired this week “have been investigated in depth on previous occasions.”

British royals are often very reluctant to take on the British press. “Never complain, never explain” is the unofficial royal motto.

But Harry, the younger son of King Charles III, has launched a full-on assault against the tabloids — whom he blames for his mother’s death after a paparazzi car chase and the spiteful coverage of his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — saying changing the media landscape is his life’s mission.

In the prince’s memoir, “Spare,” Harry says of Murdoch, “It was around this time that I began to think Murdoch was evil. No, strike that. I began to know that he was. … I couldn’t think of a single human being in the 300,000-year history of the species who’d done more damage to our collective sense of reality.”

He is also scathing about Brooks, referring to her as “Rehabber Kooks” and saying she “managed to wriggle her way into a position of great power and lately she was focusing all that power upon … me. She was hunting the Spare, straight out, and making no apologies for it.”

Harry and others claim that between 1994 and 2016, journalists working at Murdoch’s tabloid titles in Britain engaged in unlawful activity including intercepting voice mails and using deception to get confidential information.

The phone-hacking scandal, which stretches back two decades, wracked Murdoch’s tabloid empire. The media titan shuttered the News of the World, a Sunday newspaper, and criminal charges were brought against dozens of journalists and executives — including Brooks, who was acquitted. A 2021 investigation by Press Gazette, an industry magazine, estimated that the scandal cost Murdoch’s British publishing business more than $1.3 billion in payouts and legal fees.

Lewis joined News Corp. as a group general manager in 2010, after the company had already begun to grapple with the fallout of the phone-hacking scandal, and the following year moved into a role on the executive committee charged with working with investigators who were probing the wrongdoing. He was later criticized by some News Corp. journalists who believed Lewis had sold them out by providing information about them to the police. Lewis has denied this.

“I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity,” he told The Washington Post in an interview last fall after he was named to head the company.

During the three-day hearing in London this week, Harry’s lawyers offered more details about their allegation that Lewis was instrumental in the destruction of company emails that they argued could have provided evidence of greater wrongdoing. “Approval was given for the deletion of emails by [company lawyer] John Chapman and Will Lewis on the authority of Rebekah Brooks,” David Sherborne, the lawyer for Harry and other claimants, said in court Wednesday.

Lewis has denied claims that he played a role in concealing emails.

“The allegation that I was involved in any wrongdoing is completely untrue,” he told the BBC in 2020 after the claim was made in litigation related to the hacking scandal. “My role was to put things right, and that is what I did.”

On Friday, he declined to comment about the claims from Harry’s lawyers this week.

Police closed their investigation of News Group Newspapers in 2015, saying there was insufficient evidence to find corporate liability in the hacking scandal.

Sherborne is widely seen as the mind behind much of the success of various civil claims launched on behalf of Harry.

Anthony Hudson, the defense attorney for News Group Newspapers, said the proposed amendment to the case was unnecessary and seemed to be designed to “grab headlines.”

In his rebuttal to the effort to amend the case, he said the claimants were grasping at straws and recklessly expanding the suit.

“It would actually take five trials to try all of the claimant’s articles that he relies on. Of course it’s very unlikely he would get five trials,” he told the judge, according to court transcripts.

Hudson called the amendment a tactic “to distract from the reality” and mask what he says are the weaknesses of the case.

In a response in court Friday, Sherborne described the defense’s position on the amendments as “a red herring” and said 10 months was “far more than ample time” to prepare for a 2025 trial, even with the amendments.

Mark Stephens, a London-based media lawyer, said the purpose of adding senior executives like Lewis and Brooks was a strategy to draw out “disclosure,” or documents that Harry’s lawyers hope would help them get to Murdoch.

Harry’s lawyers are “shifting the argument slightly to say, ‘You became aware at some point of phone hacking and you tried to mitigate it.’ … It’s subtly different than a ‘you-knew-and-approved it’ approach.”

He added that it seemed like Harry’s lawyers were “trying to get to Murdoch, but there are executives and former executives in the way.”

Paul Schemm in London and Laura Wagner in New York contributed to this report.

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