LONDON — In the days after 13-year-old Milly Dowler went missing on her way home from school in 2002, her parents kept calling her cellphone. Her voicemail box was always full.

Then, four days after she disappeared, it suddenly rang through to voicemail. Someone had checked her messages. It gave her parents, Sally and Bob Dowler, hope that their daughter was still alive, and checking her messages remotely.

"I jumped. 'She's picked up her voicemails, Bob!' She's alive," Sally Dowler later testified in a 2011 government inquiry.

But it was false hope. It wasn't Milly who'd checked her voicemail that day. By then, she was already dead — murdered by a serial killer. Her voicemail had been hacked by a tabloid newspaper covering the story.

The revelation that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked by journalists was a tipping point in the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed the British tabloids in the early 2000s. It led to the closure of the News of the World tabloid and since then Rupert Murdoch's newspapers have paid more than $1 billion to settle hacking claims.

This week, Prince Harry joins the legal fight.

The Duke of Sussex is set to testify this week, likely starting on Tuesday, in one of the only phone-hacking lawsuits to go to trial rather than be settled. It's the first time a senior British royal has given evidence in court in over a century.

He is suing the publishers of The Daily Mirror, which he says behaved unlawfully to gain access to his private life for stories. Those articles date back to Harry's 12th birthday, when the Mirror reported he felt bad about his parents' divorce.

Unlike other victims of press intrusion, Harry is in the unique position of being able to see this legal battle through, says media analyst Alice Enders.

"He has the financial resources. He's lending his celebrity, his notoriety, and he will not stop," Enders says.

His mission is clearly a personal one.

"There's clearly a large extent to which he blames the press for the collapse of his [past] relationships and also for the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who was being chased by paparazzi when she was in a car crash in 1997," says Jim Waterson, media editor for the UK's Guardian newspaper. "You just have to read his filings in various legal cases to see that he loathes the British tabloid media more than anything in the world."

Harry has also accused the British media of being racist in its coverage of his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, prompting the couple to move to the United States in 2020.

But giving evidence in court will not be without its own risks. In addition to having to make his case against the Mirror, he will also face cross-examination himself. He is expected to face questioning about his own personal life — which could include questions about his mother Diana and his relationships before his marriage to Markle.

On Monday, the judge in the Mirror trial was visibly annoyed and admonished Harry's lawyers for their client's failure to show up in person for the start of opening statements. Harry is expected to take the stand Tuesday.

While other lawsuits have been settled, Harry vowed to take this to trial — in part, to force a public reckoning of which newspaper executives knew about phone-hacking, and when. He has vowed not to give up, saying that reforming the media landscape is his "life's work."

This week, as the prince steps into the witness box, he will get his day of reckoning.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.