By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -The publisher of a British tabloid has apologised to Prince Harry for unlawfully seeking information about him, at the start of a lawsuit the royal is bringing over alleged "industrial-scale" phone-hacking in which he is due to give evidence.
Harry, 38, and some 100 celebrities including actors, sports stars, singers and TV personalities, are suing publisher Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), accusing its titles of habitually accessing private information by widespread phone-hacking, deception and other illicit means between 1991 and 2011.
The claimants say the unlawful behaviour at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People had occurred with the full knowledge of senior editors and top executives who they say knew about it, approved it and actively covered it up.
The titles are owned by Reach.
MGN is contesting the allegations, arguing some claims have been brought too late, and rejecting most others such as saying there was no evidence Harry, known officially as the Duke of Sussex and the younger son of King Charles, was a victim of hacking. It denies any senior figures had knowledge of unlawful acts.
However, in documents to the High Court in London, MGN did admit on one occasion a private investigator had been engaged to unlawfully gather evidence about him at a London nightclub in 2004, saying it "unreservedly apologises and accepts that (Harry) is entitled to appropriate compensation".
"The fee paid (75 pounds) suggests little work was involved," said MGN's lawyers, adding they did not know to what it related and it was not part of the Duke of Sussex's claim.
PRINCE TO GIVE EVIDENCE
Harry, who was not present for the start of the hearing, has been selected as one of four test cases for the seven-week trial and is due to give evidence himself in person in early June, the first British royal to do so since the 19th century, according to local media.
"Prince or not, the blatantly unlawful and illegal methods that were used by the defendant to get every piece of information about his life away from royal duties was quite frankly appalling," David Sherborne, the lawyer representing Harry and the other claimants, told the court on Wednesday.
"No one should have been subjected to that."
Among the MGN figures Sherborne said must have known about the "industrial scale" hacking was high-profile media figure Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror editor from 1995 to 2004 and a former presenter on CNN.
In his written court submission, Sherborne said former Mirror employees had recounted how Morgan knew about it.
In an interview with the BBC, Morgan said he had never told anyone to hack a phone.
"There is no evidence that I knew anything about any of it," he said. Asked if he was worried about the legal action, he said: "No, not at all."
The trial began just days after his father's coronation on Saturday, at which Harry appeared only briefly and played no formal role. He is believed to have returned immediately to California where his son Prince Archie was celebrating his fourth birthday.
The Mirror case is just one of four Harry is currently pursuing against newspapers, saying it was his duty to expose "criminality" committed by the tabloids.
Since stepping down from their royal roles in 2020, Harry and his wife Meghan have lashed out at both the press and the palace, including those working for his brother Prince William and his stepmother, Queen Camilla, saying they had colluded in media "lies".
In its court submissions, MGN's lawyers said many of the about 140 stories that Harry claims must have come by unlawful means had in fact been briefed by royal aides.
"Many came from information disclosed by or on behalf of royal households or members of the royal family," the publishers' lawyers said.
However, a document submitted by Harry's lawyers detailed incidents of "highly suspicious" calls made by MGN to his friends, aides and family, including his sister-in-law Kate, the Princess of Wales.
It also alleged that 267 payments were made to investigators to look into Harry and those close to him, including Charles, William and Harry's late mother Princess Diana.
MGN's behaviour had ultimately led his split from ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy, the document added.
(Reporting by Michael Holden, Editing by William Maclean and Alex Richardson)