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London judge rejects Prince Harry's bid to add allegations against Rupert Murdoch in tabloid lawsuit

London judge rejects Prince Harry's bid to add allegations against Rupert Murdoch in tabloid lawsuit

LONDON (AP) — Prince Harry can't expand his privacy lawsuit against The Sun tabloid's publisher to add allegations that Rupert Murdoch and some other executives were part of an effort to conceal and destroy evidence of unlawful information gathering, a London judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision by Judge Timothy Fancourt in the High Court was a mixed ruling for the Duke of Sussex in one of his three invasion of privacy lawsuits he has brought in his ongoing battles against British tabloids.

Fancourt allowed the prince to include allegations that his phone was tapped and add claims against other journalists and private investigators that he and other claimants say used unlawful means to snoop on them for scoops.

But he rejected Harry's efforts to expand the case beyond the period from 1996 to 2015 to include claims of eavesdropping on his mother, the late Princess Diana, in 1994-95, and digging up private information on his now-wife, actor Meghan Markle, in 2016.

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Fancourt said allegations that Murdoch “turned a blind eye” to wrongdoing added nothing material to claims made against News Group Newspapers, or NGN. The judge said those claims already include “trusted lieutenants,” naming Murdoch's younger son, James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, who was editor at the defunct News of the World and The Sun.

The judge said some of Harry's efforts to blame additional executives were to further a political agenda.

“There is a desire on the part of those running the litigation on the claimants’ side to shoot at ‘trophy' targets, whether those are political issues or high-profile individuals,” Fancourt wrote. “Tempting though it no doubt is for the claimants’ team to attempt to inculpate the man at the very top, doing so will add nothing to a finding that Ms. Brooks and Mr. James Murdoch or other senior executives knew and were involved, if that is proved to be the case."

Brooks is chief executive officer of News UK, a division of News Corp. media holdings that controls The Sun and The Times among other publications. James Murdoch resigned from News Corp. in 2020.

Rupert Murdoch, 93, was executive chairman of News Corp. and director of its subsidiary, News International, now News UK, which was NGN’s parent when News of the World folded. Murdoch stepped down last fall as leader of both Fox News’ parent company and his News Corp.

Both sides claimed victory in the ruling that precedes a trial scheduled early next year.

Fancourt said that it was a split victory with the defense gaining an edge on the issues argued. He ordered Harry and other claimants to pay a third of NGN's costs spent litigating the proposed amendments.

News Group said it welcomed the decision, saying it vindicated its position that new “wide-ranging" and irrelevant allegations be excluded from the case.

The claimants said in a statement that they were pleased the judge allowed many of the amendments that had been “vigorously opposed by NGN.”

The company issued an unreserved apology in 2011 to victims of voicemail interception by the News of the World, which closed its doors after a phone hacking scandal. NGN said it has settled 1,300 claims for its newspapers, though The Sun has never accepted liability.

The three-day hearing in March included claims against NGN by others, including actor Hugh Grant, who accused The Sun of tapping his phone, bugging his car and breaking into his home to snoop on him.

Since then, Grant said he had reluctantly agreed to accept "an enormous sum of money” to settle his lawsuit.

Grant said he had to settle because of a court policy that could have stuck him with a huge legal bill even if he prevailed at trial. A civil court rule intended to avoid jamming up the courts would have required Grant to pay legal fees to both sides if he won at trial but was awarded anything lower than the settlement offer.

Attorney David Sherborne has suggested that Harry may have to settle for the same reason.

Harry has a similar case pending against the owner of the Daily Mail.

Last year, he won his first case to go to trial when Fancourt found phone hacking was “widespread and habitual” at Mirror Group Newspapers. In addition to a court judgment, he settled remaining allegations that included his legal fees.

Brian Melley, The Associated Press