A British High Court ruled that parts of a UK tabloid story about Prince Harry were “defamatory,” securing an early victory for the Duke of Sussex in his libel lawsuit against the publishers of the Mail on Sunday.
Harry is suing Associated Newspapers Limited over a story published in February about the duke’s legal proceedings against the UK’s Home Office over police protection for himself and his family.
In a decision published Friday, London High Court Justice Matthew Nicklin wrote that the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the Mail on Sunday’s article met the legal threshold for defamation. “Overall, the article does signal clearly to the reader that the actions of the claimant, captured in meaning, are discreditable or worthy of criticism,” he wrote.
The article at the center of the lawsuit is headlined, “EXCLUSIVE: How Prince Harry tried to keep his legal fight with the government over police bodyguards a SECRET... then - just minutes after the story broke - his PR machine tried to put a positive spin on the dispute.”
As Nicklin cited in his decision, in an earlier filing, Harry and his lawyers argued that the story defamed him by reporting that he “improperly and cynically tried to manipulate and confuse public opinion by authorizing his ‘spin doctors’ to put out false and misleading statements.”
The High Court judge agreed with this interpretation, writing that the story could lead readers to believe that Harry had purposefully tried to bamboozle the public about the truth of his legal proceedings against the government.
“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,” the judge wrote. “That supplies the necessary element to make the meanings defamatory at common law.”
Nicklin also determined that the story’s description of how Harry and his lawyers had attempted to keep his effort to secure police protection from the Home Office confidential met the threshold for defamation.
The “natural and ordinary” meaning of the Mail on Sunday article, Nicklin wrote, was that Harry “had initially sought confidentiality restrictions that were far-reaching and unjustifiably wide and were rightly challenged by the Home Office on the grounds of transparency and open justice.”
The High Court justice wrote that “the message that comes across clearly, in the headlines and [specific] paragraphs” of the Mail on Sunday story met the common law requirements for defamation.
Throughout the judgment, Nicklin emphasized that his decision was “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 on what basis,” Nicklin wrote.
The current lawsuit is not the first legal action that Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle), have taken against the publishers of the Mail on Sunday, Mail Online, and the Daily Mail.
Harry sued ANL in November 2020 over a story claiming that he had “turned his back” on the Royal Marines after his exit from royal life mandated resigning from his position as the ceremonial head of the UK military corps. The paper retracted the story and printed an apology to the duke in December 2020, paying “substantial” damages to settle the case.
Meghan was also awarded victory in her multiyear lawsuit against ANL about the Mail on Sunday’s publication of a handwritten letter she sent her estranged father in 2019. On Feb. 11, 2021, a High Court judge ruled in a summary judgment that the paper had violated her privacy and copyright by printing the document. (The publishers unsuccessfully attempted to appeal the decision, but the court ruled once again in Meghan’s favor this past December.)
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the Mail on Sunday and the Sussexes’ press team for comment.