London (CNN Business)Parts of a tabloid article alleging that Prince Harry tried to keep a legal challenge against a British government department a secret were “defamatory,” a UK High Court judge ruled on Friday.
The Duke of Sussex is suing Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) after one of its publications, the Mail on Sunday, published a story about the duke’s separate High Court case against the UK’s Home Office concerning security arrangements when he and his family visit the country.
The article, which still appears on the newspaper’s website, was published in February with the headline: “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.”
In a written statement at a preliminary hearing last month, lawyers for the duke argued that the piece falsely suggested Harry had “lied” and “improperly and cynically tried to manipulate and confuse public opinion,” according to the PA Media news agency. Barristers for ANL rejected the claims and said there was “no hint of impropriety on any sensible reading of the article.”
At the preliminary hearing, Justice Matthew Nicklin was asked to determine the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the article and consider whether it was defamatory.
On Friday, the judge ruled that parts of the article were defamatory. This judgment is only the first stage in the case, with the publisher now expected to file a defense.
Nicklin noted that the article would have led readers to believe that Prince Harry “was responsible for trying to mislead and confuse the public as to the true position, which was ironic given that he now held a public role in tackling ‘misinformation.'”
Nicklin said in his judgment that a reader of the article would think the Duke of Sussex was “responsible for public statements, issued on his behalf, which claimed that he was willing to pay for police protection in the UK, and that his legal challenge was to the Government’s refusal to permit him to do so, whereas the true position, as revealed in documents filed in the legal proceedings, was that he had only made the offer to pay after the proceedings had commenced.”
“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,” Nicklin added. “That supplies the necessary element to make the meanings defamatory at common law.”
Turning to what comes next, Nicklin said: “The next step, will be for the defendant to file a defence to the claim… It will be a matter for determination later in the proceedings whether the claim succeeds or fails, and if so on what basis.”
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex cut off all dealings with four big British tabloid newspapers including the Daily Mail in April 2020 after years of strained relations. The couple have repeatedly spoken out about the intense media scrutiny and pattern of negative coverage they have faced since their relationship was revealed in 2016.