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Prince Harry is set to testify in a phone hacking trial involving British tabloids


This week in London, Prince Harry is set to do something that has not been done by any British royal for more than a century. He's going to take the witness stand in court. The Duke of Sussex is set to testify in a phone-hacking trial. He is one of several plaintiffs suing British newspapers for allegedly hacking their phones. It's been a notorious and apparently longstanding practice of the British tabloids, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In 2002, a 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowler vanished on her way home from school. A nationwide search followed. And Milly's mom, Sally, went on TV pleading.


SALLY DOWLER: If someone has taken Milly and is holding her then, please, please, give her back to us.

FRAYER: Sally and her husband, Bob, kept calling their daughter's cellphone. Her voicemail was always full - until four days later.


DOWLER: I rang her phone.


DOWLER: And it clicked through onto her voicemail, so I heard her voice.


DOWLER: And I was - it was just like I jumped. She's picked up her voicemails, Bob. She's alive.

FRAYER: That's Sally testifying before a government inquiry nine years later about her false hope, because Milly was already dead, murdered by a serial killer. And her voicemail had been hacked by a newspaper covering the story.

JACQUI HAMES: There's always been a role for investigative reporting. But there has to be a public interest for it. And those lines were clearly being crossed.

FRAYER: Former police detective Jacqui Hames' own phone was hacked by a newspaper eager for clues in a murder her husband was investigating. The paper even hired private eyes to snoop around their house.

HAMES: We had two very young children at the time. Things were moved in our garden. Our mail was tampered with. And at one stage, we were followed.

FRAYER: This was in the early 2000s, when Rupert Murdoch's U.K. tabloids actually made profits and held sway even with prime ministers, says media analyst Alice Enders.

ALICE ENDERS: It was just a huge kind of industrial operation to drive sales, you know? And there were always pictures of Mr. Murdoch going into Number 10. And they tried very hard to cover their tracks. But when everybody does it, it becomes part of the culture.

FRAYER: That culture is largely gone now, killed off by phone encryption, falling ad revenues and the closure of the Murdoch tabloid News of the World, seen as the biggest offender. His company has paid more than $1 billion to settle hacking claims. But trials have been rare until Prince Harry decided to sue over stories he says are based on material obtained illegally.

ENDERS: He has the financial resources. He's lending his celebrity, his notoriety. And he will not stop. These paparazzi, who were they? The paparazzi that chased his mother through the streets of Paris.

JIM WATERSON: This is more of a kind of revenge mission, I think.

FRAYER: The Guardian's media editor, Jim Waterson, says this may be personal for Prince Harry. But the raucous British tabloids have already had their power curtailed by new privacy laws that may now be stricter than those even in the U.S.

WATERSON: Some of the things you see on sites like TMZ would just not be publishable in the U.K.

FRAYER: A public accounting of just how far up the chain of command phone-hacking went, which executives knew what and when, that hasn't really happened, at least not to the extent former police detective Jacqui Hames would like. She's now an activist with a group called Hacked Off, which campaigns for justice for hacking victims.

HAMES: I didn't like being labelled a victim. And I'm not going to let them get away with it. If you keep at it, that truth will out.

FRAYER: This week, she'll be watching as Prince Harry, after breaking with the royal family and moving to the U.S., appears in a London courtroom determined not to give up this fight.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers South Asia for NPR News. In 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.