By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Prince Harry issued a rare statement on Tuesday criticizing the media for intruding into the private life of his American girlfriend, saying the press had subjected her to "a wave of abuse and harassment".
British newspapers have been running daily stories about Meghan Markle since it emerged at the end of October that the 35-year-old actress had been "secretly" dating the prince, 32, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth, for several months.
Harry and his elder brother Prince William, the second in line to the throne, have had a strained relationship with the press ever since their mother, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while being chased by paparazzi on motorbikes.
However, the statement from his communications secretary, which officially confirmed Harry and Markle's relationship for the first time, contained an unusually strong condemnation of the press.
"He has rarely taken formal action on the very regular publication of fictional stories that are written about him and he has worked hard to develop a professional relationship with the media," the statement said.
"But the past week has seen a line crossed. His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment.
"Some of this has been very public - the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."
Divorcee Markle is a native of Los Angeles who stars in the legal drama "Suits". Her father is white and her mother African-American.
The statement said royal aides had fought nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories from appearing in papers. It also included a litany of alleged offences by reporters.
Markle's mother had been forced to struggle past journalists camped outside her front door, it said, and reporters and photographers had tried to gain illegal entry to the home.
Markle's ex-boyfriend had been offered substantial bribes, it said, while "nearly every friend, co-worker, and loved one in her life" had been bombarded by the press.
The prince understood he enjoyed a privileged life but was worried about Markle's safety and was "deeply disappointed" he could not protect her, the statement said.
Harry, William and William's wife Kate are a staple of the front pages of British newspapers and gossip magazines, which pore over every aspect of their lives.
All three had their phones hacked by employees of the now-defunct News of the World tabloid a decade ago. William has criticized intrusions into Kate's life before they were married and attempts to take unsolicited pictures of his young children, George and Charlotte.
In 2012, the Sun defied the royal family and printed pictures of Harry cavorting naked in Las Vegas.
"I think it's fairly obvious how far back (the mistrust of the press) goes. It's when I was very small," Harry said in an interview in 2013.
In the latest statement, he said he hoped "fair-minded" people would understand why he had now spoken out.
"It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms Markle should be subjected to such a storm," the statement said.
"He knows commentators will say this is 'the price she has to pay' and that 'this is all part of the game'. He strongly disagrees. This is not a game - it is her life and his."
Britain's Society of Editors, which has nearly 400 senior newspaper members, said its Code of Practice, policed by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), laid down strict guidelines on issues like harassment and photography.
Executive Director Bob Satchwell said the code had been strengthened since Princess Diana's death and noted that the British press had respected a voluntary reporting embargo when Harry was serving with British forces in Afghanistan in 2008.
"Prince Harry is aware of the IPSO system. He has used it in the past so he knows the process," Satchwell said in a statement.
"However, IPSO has no jurisdiction over the behavior of foreign media which have huge interest in the Royal family and are not constrained by the Code of Practice."
(Editing by Stephen Addison and Andrew Roche)