The news broke on Friday. Buckingham Palace confirmed that Prince Harry had filed claims against the owners of The Sun and the Daily Mirror for “illegal interception of voicemail messages.”
The palace did not elaborate any further. However, reports say the allegations are from the early 2000s.
This news alone was bound to drum up some serious press—after all, a senior member of the British royal family is suing two of the country’s most popular tabloids. But this wasn’t the Sussexes’ only legal battle this week. Earlier they announced the duchess’ decision to sue The Mail on Sunday over what they say was the unlawful publication of a private letter. (Although the specific correspondence was not named, it is reported to be one she wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle. According to her law firm, the publication was a breach of privacy and an infringement of copyright.)
Harry explained their decision on the newly created website sussexofficial.uk. “Unfortunately, my wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences—a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son,” he wrote. “There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behavior, because it destroys people and destroys lives.” The passionate statement is the landing page, and only content, on the website.
Outlets around the world were quick to respond: Prince Harry was at “war” with the British press.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex aren’t the only royals who recently sought damages from a publication. Prince William and Kate Middleton took action against French tabloid Closer after it published topless photos of the duchess sunbathing in 2012. In 2017, the couple was awarded 100,000 euros in damages.
Now, the parallels between Meghan and Harry’s cases and Kate and William’s aren’t exact. Meghan and Harry’s feels more like a crusade, as they are taking on multiple U.K. papers, alleging multiple incidents from various time periods, whereas Kate and William dealt with one conflict in one international press outlet. And although no one in the British royal family is free from scrutiny, the media coverage of Meghan was particularly vitriolic. (Take this Daily Mail headline, for example: “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed—so will he be dropping by for tea?”)
But the common thread is that each couple is fighting for the right to privacy in a 24/7 media age. While royals of an earlier generation may have had to contend with negative stories in papers, royals of this generation have to deal with a much nastier beast: negative stories in papers…that go viral. Kate’s nude photographs, for example, were technically just published in France. But they were splattered all over the internet, available for anyone with a WiFi connection to find. For Meghan, particularly inflammatory or juicy stories are published in one outlet, aggregated by dozens of others worldwide, and soon enough are trending on Twitter, all in the span of several hours. (The international appetite for the royals, who are in a rare category of global superstars, is insatiable.) “In today’s digital age, press fabrications are repurposed as truth across the globe. One day’s coverage is no longer tomorrow’s chip-paper,” wrote Harry of these alleged mistruths.
While the royal family is by no means desperate for the money that comes from a lawsuit, it is a tactic deployed when they want to draw a deep line in the sand. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge “wished to make the point strongly that this kind of unjustified intrusion should not happen.” Harry and Meghan evoked a sense of moral responsibility: “We all know this isn’t acceptable, at any level. We won’t and can’t believe in a world where there is no accountability for this.” They’re setting a precedent and sending a warning: they will fight for their right to privacy and will employ legal power to do it.
It’s pertinent to mention the late Princess Diana, who her sons feel was subject to an unprecedented, and unwarranted, amount of press intrusion. It seems that still haunts them. (“I believe she cried more to do with the press intrusion than anything else in her life. The impact it was having on her that we would then see and feel was very difficult to understand,” Prince William said in the Diana, 7 Days BBC documentary.) And while William and Kate did not mention his late mother in their comments about their lawsuit, Harry did: “My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
So these lawsuits are a reaction to both the past and the present. But they’re also about the future: their fear of incessant, unquenchable, and worldwide press coverage, and what their lives could become because of it. Harry and Meghan may lose these cases. But there’s no doubt it’s a fight they feel is worth waging.