By Jess Glass and Tom Pilgrim, PA
A tabloid publisher has “unreservedly” apologised to Britain's Prince Harry for an instance of unlawful information gathering, a London court has been told.
Several high-profile figures, including Harry, are bringing damages claims against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) over alleged unlawful information gathering at its titles.
Claims brought by four individuals, one of whom is Harry, are being heard in a trial as “representative” cases of the types of allegations facing the publisher.
MGN, publisher of titles including The Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, is contesting the claims, arguing that some have been brought too late.
At the start of the trial on Wednesday, Andrew Green KC, for MGN, said voicemail interception was denied in the trial cases, including Harry’s.
However Mr Green also said the publisher “unreservedly apologises” to the duke for one instance of unlawful information gathering and that it accepts he was entitled to “appropriate compensation”.
The barrister said that it was admitted that a private investigator was instructed, by an MGN journalist at The People, to unlawfully gather information about his activities at the Chinawhite nightclub one night in February 2004.
“Otherwise, the specified allegations are denied, or in a few cases not admitted,” he added.
Mr Green said there was a reference to a payment record for £75 (€86) in February 2004.
He continued: “It is admitted that this represented an instruction to engage in unlawful information gathering, and MGN unreservedly apologises and accepts that the Duke of Sussex is entitled to appropriate compensation for it.
“MGN does not know what information this related to, although it clearly had some connection with his conduct at the nightclub.”
The barrister said that there was a People article published in February 2004 “giving the recollection of a woman Harry spent time with” at the club.
Mr Green added: “The Duke of Sussex notably does not claim in relation to this article, so it is not alleged that this instruction led to the publication of his private information.
“The fee paid, £75, suggests little work was involved.”
As well as Harry, Coronation Street actors Nikki Sanderson and Michael Turner, known professionally as Michael Le Vell, and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman are all expected to give evidence during the six to seven-week trial.
Mr Green said voicemail interception was denied in all four cases and that there was “no evidence or no sufficient evidence”.
The barrister continued: “There is some evidence of the instruction of third parties to engage in other types of unlawful information gathering in respect of each of the claimants, save for Mr Turner whose claim is entirely denied, and MGN has made pleaded admissions in respect thereof.
“MGN unreservedly apologises for all such instances of unlawful information gathering, and assures the claimants that such conduct will never be repeated.”
At the start of the hearing in London, barrister David Sherborne, for the duke and other people bringing claims, said that the case featured unlawful activities on an “industrial scale carried out across three newspapers over a period of about 20 years or so”.
Addressing Harry’s case, Mr Sherborne said his claim covered the period 1995 to 2011 and is “significant not just in terms of the span but also the range of activities”.
The barrister said that in 1995, “the royal family had become big news for the tabloid newspapers” with interest continuing throughout the now-King Charles’ divorce from his then-wife Diana, Princess of Wales, and her “untimely death” in 1997.
Mr Sherborne told the court: “We all remember the images of him walking behind his mother’s coffin.
“From that moment on, as a schoolboy and from his career in the army and as a young adult he was subjected, it was clear, to the most intrusive methods of obtaining his personal information.”
An MGN spokesman said: “Where historical wrongdoing has taken place we have made admissions, take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly, but we will vigorously defend against allegations of wrongdoing where our journalists acted lawfully.
“MGN is now part of a very different company.
“We are committed to acting with integrity and our objective in this trial is to allow both the business and our journalists to move forward from events that took place many years ago.”