Prince Harry survives his courtroom high wire act

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Prince Harry at High CourtIMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
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Prince Harry seemed to grow in confidence during the second day of his court appearance

It might have been the sense of relief, but there was an emotion-packed pause before Prince Harry answered one of his final questions in the witness box.

“You have had to go through these articles and answer questions knowing this is a very public courtroom and the world’s media are watching. How has that made you feel?” Prince Harry was asked by his barrister at the end of his court appearance in the case against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN).

After a day and a half of giving evidence at London’s High Court, he looked exhausted and the pause got longer.

“It’s a lot,” was all he said in the end, sounding distinctly choked up.

In the witness box over the course of two days he had spoken quietly, often in terse, quickfire answers, interspersed with some nervous quips – “if you say so”, he said a few times ironically to some details being presented to him.

He has accused the Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People of hacking and illegal information-gathering.

The great majority of his time in court has been facing questions from the Mirror Group’s barrister, Andrew Green, an interrogator with a reputation fearsome enough for him to be known as a “beast in court”.

But in the end, it was quite possibly Prince Harry who will have left the court feeling better about the last couple of days. He’d finished his high-wire act without falling off.

He hadn’t crumbled or got wound up or tetchy, he hadn’t been dragged into too many awkward questions, he’d stuck to his own lines. You couldn’t exactly say he’d been an eloquent witness, but he’d not walked into any traps.

“For my whole life the press has misled me and covered up the wrongdoing,” he claimed.

He talked of how paranoid it had made him. In evidence he said he’d never walk down a London street. But he wouldn’t even walk around this court building with its airport-style scanning checks, going everywhere within a bubble of security guards. A guard had stood across the doorway as he went into the toilet.

But when the hearing was over, Prince Harry looked relieved and relaxed, chatting to his lawyers and those backing him in his battle against the tabloids, before heading downstairs to his waiting car.

The Mirror’s barrister had aimed to punch some big holes in the prince’s claims – saying that just because Harry had faced a lifetime of press intrusion, that didn’t mean that this specific newspaper group had hacked his phones or done anything unlawful to him.

He argued that a number of these disputed news stories hadn’t even originated with the Mirror’s papers, they’d already been published elsewhere or had been based on press releases, rather than by unlawful surveillance.

But as the hearing progressed it felt like Prince Harry was growing in confidence, his wrist bands on show as he looked at the computer screens on his desk with the evidence under discussion.

For such an historic event, the first senior royal in the witness box for over a century, it was a low-key setting, a modern open-plan court that was more budget airport departure lounge than mahogany-filled courtroom.

There was also a sense of history about some of the pun-tastic tabloid articles under discussion.

For younger audiences it must have seemed like journalistic archaeology, these inky front pages and half-forgotten celebrities. You couldn’t search for some of these stories now, because they were published before Google was even invented.

While Prince Harry has talked about his “life’s work” being to change the media landscape, technology has already done much of the work for him.

When some of these stories were being published 20 years ago, the Daily Mirror was selling 2 million copies a day, while the most recent ABC circulation figures show sales of about 280,000.

Since the era of these phone hacking claims, mobile phones and digital news have chipped away at the world of the tabloids.

There was also a sense from his emotional testimony that Prince Harry is still slightly trapped in these tabloid years, making him seem younger than he really is. He’s only five years younger than the prime minister, but Harry in the public eye is still somehow remembered as the younger brother mourning the loss of his mother.

This unprecedented appearance in the High Court also showed how for the prince the blurring between private and public life must be a very strange experience.

We’ve spent two days looking at stories chronicling his life in headlines. And when he entered the court building he’d have walked past a photo and a video of his late grandmother, who opened this building. The Dieu et Mon Droit symbol in the courtroom is the motto of the monarch, his father.

But during this court appearance he also explained precisely why he was really here – why he was bringing this legal action, when previous royals had fought shy of facing questions in court.

It was a deliberate attempt to find a different course of action “to stop the abuse, intrusion and hate that was coming towards me and wife”.

Rather than the longstanding royal policy of “don’t complain, don’t explain”, he has taken the higher-risk strategy of going into battle in the courtroom.

It’s also an unexpected journey that has seen him making comments a long way from the usual royal political neutrality. In his written statement he seemed to be wading into the culture war with a swipe at a “rock-bottom” government.

It will be up to the judge to decide on balance who seems to be more convincing, the Mirror Group or Prince Harry and other claimants – and it’s quite possible that the result won’t be known until the autumn.

If he FaceTimes his family in California, as he said yesterday, it might be more relaxed this evening.

But given the number of other legal claims involving Prince Harry, this could be the first of a number of courtroom appearances. From the royal court to the law court.