Suing the Media for Revenge and Profit

Published Jan. 2023

Eric Robinson
By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications

In his new bestselling book and slew of media interviews promoting it, Prince Harry rails against the British media and their alleged collaborators within the British Monarchy, blaming them for everything from the death of his mother, Princess Diana, to the rift with his family that persists after he and his wife Meghan Markle “stepped back” as senior members of the British royal family and moved to the United States in 2020.

He has also joined a lawsuit in the United Kingdom against Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Mail Online alleging that the newspapers used various underhanded and unethical techniques to invade the privacy of Harry and the other celebrities who brought the suit, including Sir Elton John. Harry has another suit pending against the Mail on Sundayin which he won a preliminary ruling in July—and has filed a third against Mirror Group Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, over alleged privacy violations dating back to 2006.

This is in some ways a continuation of the Royal Family’s tempestuous relationship with the press. But Harry has a broader goal than righting some of the alleged wrongs he says he and his family have suffered because of intrusive media coverage, saying that reforming media practices is now one of his life goals.

He also said he was fine if the lawsuits resulted in the newspapers going out of business. “One of the reasons I am moving the mission of changing the media landscape in the UK from being personal to my life’s work, a large part of that is down to the ongoing legal battles—specifically with phone-hacking—I put in my claims over three years ago and I am still waiting,” he told interviewer Tom Bradby. “So one might assume that a lot of this, from their perspective, is retaliation and trying to intimidate me to settle rather than take it to court and potentially they have to shut down. That is a large part of it.”

Prince Harry is not the only plaintiff who has sued the media recently with the goal of forcing the offending media entity out of business, or at least spending a crippling amount of money in legal fees.

Early last year, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy sued over articles in Insider (1, 2, 3) alleging that he had violently abused women during consensual sex. When the lawsuit was pending, Portnoy tweeted a video in which he stated that he was “coming for” the Insider reporter who wrote the stories and for Insider publisher Henry Blogett, that they “have to pay the price” for their reporting and that he was “coming for your fucking throats.” 

A federal court in Massachusetts dismissed Portnoy’s lawsuit in November. He has appealed the dismissal.

Former president Donald Trump has filed numerous libel lawsuits against the media. But he mainly sues over coverage that is unflattering or that he doesn’t like, and these suits have not been successful when they get to court. These lawsuits seem more aimed at harassment by forcing media defendants (or their insurers) to pay lawyers to defend the suits, rather than obtaining revenge through damage awards.

But perhaps the most prominent “revenge” lawsuit was PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel’s funding of a privacy lawsuit by wrestler Hulk Hogan against Gawker for posting excerpts of a video of Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife. Thiel said he funded the legal fees for the lawsuit in revenge for the site’s outing his sexual orientation several years earlier.

The jury awarded Hogan $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages, leading Gawker and publisher Nick Denton to both declare bankruptcy. Gawker nevertheless appealed the verdict, but the parties eventually reached a settlement in which Hogan received $31 million out of the proceeds of the site’s sale of its assets.

Another likely example of a revenge defamation suit was one filed by a former attorney for the brother of “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken over the journalist James B. Stewart’s book Den of Thieves. The book detailed Milken’s meteoric career in finance, which led to him pleading guilty to securities fraud in 1990 and paying $1.1 billion in fines and reimbursements and serving almost two years in prison. He was pardoned by President Trump. Milken reportedly pleaded guilty to preclude prosecution of his brother Lowell.

During the libel lawsuit, it was revealed that the legal fees were being paid in part by a loan from Lowell Milken. The libel lawsuit was dismissed by the trial court, with the dismissal affirmed on appeal. “I always thought this was, at root, some effort [by the Milkens] to get me,” Stewart told the magazine Legal Affairs, “….and, maybe more important, to discourage other reporters from aggressive reporting on the Milkens.”

Of course, revenge is an inherent part of most lawsuits against the media, since plaintiffs want to be compensated for the harms allegedly caused by the media defendants, and they also want to punish the defendants for the alleged misdeeds. But these lawsuits show that well-funded plaintiffs can use even dubious claims to punish the media by forcing them to pay lawyers and face financial difficulties or worse in order to get the claims resolved.

Reporters’ Access to Tribal Land

 On Jan. 14, a reporter for The Post and Courier was removed from a meeting of the Catawba Nation on the tribe’s reservation near Rock Hill, and a York County sheriff’s deputy handcuffed and detained her before issuing her a citation for misdemeanor trespassing.

The meeting’s agenda included the status of the tribe’s Two Kings Casino in King’s Mountain, N.C. and whether to end an arrangement with a company that helps operate the casino, which has led to federal scrutiny.

It’s important to remember that tribes like the Catawba Nation are sovereign governments, with their own constitutions, laws and courts. The 1968 federal Indian Civil Rights Act bars tribes from making or enforcing any law abridging freedom of speech or of the press, but tribes have the power to interpret these provisions in their own ways, which may or may not be similar to how federal and state courts have interpreted and applied the provisions of the First Amendment.

Tribes do retain the power to restrict access by non-tribal members to tribal land, and to place conditions on entry or continued presence. Thus tribal officials may decide to limit or bar access by non-tribal newspeople.

Eric P. Robinson focuses on media and internet law as associate professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Of Counsel to Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant. He has worked in media law for more than 25 years and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions are his own, not necessarily those of his employer

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