By Alexander Smith - NBC News
LONDON — Prince Harry is about to take his battle with the media to a new historic cycle, becoming the first high-ranking member of the British royal family in 130 years to appear as a witness in court.
He will take the stand Tuesday at London's High Court to testify in his case against the editors of Britain's Daily Mirror tabloid. The prince and others have accused Mirror Group Newspapers of obtaining information about them illegally, through phone hacking and other illicit methods. The Mirror Group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.
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Although the expected showdown will see Harry take on those he has accused of going to illegal lengths in his pursuit of royal firsts, it could also provide new fuel for his public family feud.
"Prince Harry's decision to take the stand is literally historic," historian and royal commentator Sarah Gristwood told NBC News, sister network of Noticias Telemundo. "The last time a high-ranking royal sat in the witness dock was more than a century ago," he added.
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Allowing himself to be questioned is perhaps the riskiest move in Harry's campaign against the tabloid press. He blames paparazzi for the death of his mother, Princess Diana, in 1997, and has accused the British media of racism in harassing his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which led the couple to leave real life for the United States.
Their testimony promises to be a potentially uncomfortable experience.
The stakes are high
The prince has already risked the wrath of the courts - both legal and public - by failing to show up for Monday's opening day of proceedings. His lawyer, David Sherborne, said the 38-year-old prince did not leave California until Sunday night, after celebrating the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter, Lilibet, and that his attendance would therefore be "complicated."
The judge, Timothy Fancourt, said he was "surprised" by Harry's absence — a relative rudeness in the underrated world of lawyer jargon. Mirror Group lawyer Andrew Green said it was "absolutely extraordinary" that Harry had not come forward.
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He will now face two days of relentless questioning by a senior trial lawyer, known as King's Counsel, a radical departure from the carefully tailored narrative Harry has been able to present in his Netflix series, his memoir, Spare, and various friendly interviews.
Not only could it bring to light new details about Harry and Meghan's lives, but also about that of their family, including King Charles III and the heir, Prince William, Harry's older brother.
And that's why his testimony is so unusual: Charles, his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, and his family, dating back several generations, have tended to stick to the mantra of "never complain, never give explanations," trying to rise above the maelstrom of public controversies by saying as little as possible, at least officially.
Prince Harry arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Tuesday, March 28, 2023.Alastair Grant/AP
"The family motto is 'never complain, never explain,' but it's just a motto and it doesn't really hold up," he explained to Anderson Cooper on CBS' 60 Minutes in January.
By taking the stand this week, Harry has torn up this old palace manual, the latest break with his family and traditions.
He shows no signs of wanting to settle out of court, as his brother did with News Group Newspapers, Rupert Murdoch's British arm, according to court documents filed by Harry last month. As a billionaire of inherited wealth, Harry can afford an expensive court process; He is also motivated by a decades-long sense of injustice.
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"We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health," Harry said in an interview on The Late Late Show With James Corden in February 2021.
"This is toxic," he added, saying the media had created a "really difficult" environment for the couple.
NBC News live-in contributor Katie Nicholl said, "You're going to lose a lot of money if you lose the case, but I don't think it's about the money. It's about this crusade, this absolute mission bent on changing the media. And I think, for Harry, if he loses, there's a lot at stake in terms of his future, his credibility."
The last time a royal appeared in court was in 1891, when Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, testified after one of his opponents in a card game was accused of cheating. Twenty years earlier he was called to testify after a woman said she had had an affair with him.
"The dishonorable nature of these cases caused Edward's appearances to be taken as evidence of his unstable character; his mother, Queen Victoria, was horrified," Gristwood said. He warned that Harry's appearance could also "prove problematic." The royal family has always been very aware that it needs the press as much as the press needs them."
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The prince is perhaps the highest-profile public figure to take action against British newspapers, alleging shady practices such as phone hacking, which typically involves accessing a person's voicemails, but he is far from the first.
It is a scandal that erupted in the United Kingdom in 2011 after it was revealed that the News of the World used these methods to obtain stories, which led to the closure of the newspaper.
News Group has apologized for the hack at the now-defunct newspaper.
Over the years, dozens of celebrities, including actor Hugh Grant and musician Elton John, have taken the press to court.
The prince has taken legal action against three major newspaper publishers, and is one of more than 100 personalities who have sued Mirror Group Newspapers, owned by a company called Reach.
Reach has apologised for a case in which The Sunday People, the Mirror's sister masthead, illegally sought information about Harry, but has denied the other claims and said there is no evidence of them.
The Mirror group has said it used documents, public statements and sources to legally report on the prince.
Green, the Mirror's lawyer, said a substantial number of the articles in question were of an "impressive level of triviality" and that reporters had used sources and public records to obtain information legally, with the exception of a few cases of illegal information gathering.