Tuesday, 28 August 2012


I said I would write something about THOSE pics that appeared on TMZ.  I have only just got round to it.  But there are issues here that are worth discussing.

I think it's fair to say that, outside of Britain, comments were mostly jokey and dismissive.  There were some who thought that the #3 to the Throne might behave better, but, frankly, the children of the Heir to Throne (and particularly siblings out of the real running) have traditionally behaved badly.  That might partly be because they have nothing to lose; it might partly be because they have lots of money and lots of time; it may be because everybody wants to party with Royalty and there is a good chance they might get to do so with a sibling (as opposed to the better protected Heirs); or it may just be an indolent descent into louche society, since they don't really have a role (once they've risen through the military ranks and done a bit of charity).  That's not to excuse Harry necessarily, but it is probably why most people here seemed merely to shrug their shoulders and raise their eyes heavenwards.  Even TMZ's capture of the photographs had an oddly jubilent note about it and was not at all judgemental or even salacious.  I therefore thought the incident was going to die a death.

Over here, the Palace alerted the Press Complaints Commission to the fact that publication of the photographs here might infringe Harry's privacy.  The press were informed of this contact through the normal procedures (not warned off, as some arch liberals asserted) and the press as one decided to publish the story but not the pictures.  Again, it seemed as though that would be it.  Nobody showed a great deal of interest in the story.  But then The Sun newspaper broke ranks and published.  They said they had done so, both in the public interest and because, since everyone had by then seen the photographs, there was no point anymore in holding them back.  They didn't say so, but the inference was that Harry's privacy had already been infringed and further propagation of the pics could not constitute an infringement by The Sun.

Although no one showed much interest in the affair before this, there have so far been several thousand complaints to the PCC about The Sun's actions.  It seems that the British public does feel that publication of private or intimate photographs of celebrities is an infringement of privacy.

I say 'celebrities', even though the term is much misused these days, because the whole point about the Leveson Inquiry is that the media overstepped the mark in trying to obtain and publish private information about famous people with a claim to celebrity.  Sometimes such gossip is justified and of public interest, such as when the celebrity's public stance is shown to be a fraud; sometimes it is merely self-serving, such as photographs of celebrities deliberately exposing themselves to gain publicity; and sometimes it is of no real interest at all, such as 'celebrity dumps boy/girlfriend and goes to party with someone else'.  Well, I suppose someone somewhere might find that last example really interesting, but the question is whether the newspaper with the biggest circulation in Britain should be bothering with such fluff.  Of course it is the accumulation of such fluff that probably sells The Sun, but that's another matter.

The point is that the Harry story became something much more here than a tale of naughty goings-on by a celebrity.  The Sun clearly took the view that, post-Leveson (or at least, since the Inquiry hasn't yet reached a conclusion, post-The Sun's evidence to Leveson) the media had to reassert its independence.  Not publishing photographs that were freely available, just because a possible infringement of privacy might occur, was clearly a step too far for the free press.  Having said that, it was only The Sun (and one assumes the slightly bruised Rupert Murdoch) that took that view.  Now we have to see whether the PCC has any teeth post-Leveson in the face of several thousand complaints from the public.  But, frankly, I'm not sure it matters either way.  The Palace has since not complained and said that the decision to publish is ultimately one for the editors.  Quite right.  And several thousand complaints is not actually so many from a population of many millions.  But none of those complaints has come from the Palace, Harry's legal representatives or anyone connected with the Royals at all.  So, bully for The Sun for showing that the press in Britain is still free.  But have they really done so in fact?
Do these photographs really shine a light on anything important?  We all knew of the story.  Many of us had looked in on TMZ's website. The decision smacks rather of Murdoch's continued power games.  He more than anyone suffered from the phone hacking and related scandals.  He clearly didn't want to remain cowed.  Yet publishing something that no one involved complains about seems to me not much of a bold disclosure nor much of a brave revelation by an unbowed campaigner.

But was privacy really an issue here?  There are two angles to this - one, should Harry have expected anything happening in his private suite to remain private?  Well, yes, he should.  And, two, in inviting up to his room a bunch of people he had just picked up in the bar, especially with everyone having a camera in their pocket these days, should he have accepted that he was giving up his right to privacy?  Actually, no, I think.  It is an unfortunate fact that almost any pic of Harry that night would have fetched a fair price from the gossip press.  So, if he insists on cavorting with strangers, he is putting his privacy on the line and must expect it to be infringed.  I think it is a sad reflection on today and I feel sorry that he can't really guarantee privacy, but that's the way it is.  What the newspapers decide to do about it is another matter.  He still has a right to privacy when he is off duty, but it's not a right that can be easily maintained.  No other British newspaper felt the need to flex its muscles in the way The Sun understandably did and they all presumably took the view that not publishing showed sympathetic restraint, if not a view that there was a lack of interest or even that publishing was a pointless gesture, once the story was out.  Personally, especially since the photographs were such poor quality and so unrevealing, I think they added nothing at all to the story.  And since the story was such a non-story, I think it was adequately dealt with on the first day, by referring to TMZ.  I'm not aware whether The Sun sold vastly more copies of its newspaper that day, but I suspect not.

Now, another question.  Did Harry do anything wrong?  Did that over-ride any claim to privacy and justify publishing the photographs?  OK, he's a senior Royal and maybe could be more stayed in his behaviour.  According to his friends, when the camera appeared, he was in fact gallantly, but probably foolishly, trying to shield the naked girl.  The two quickly left the room at that point to avoid further embarrassment.  But, whether that's true or not, he's single; he was understandably letting off steam before returning to arduous and dangerous military duty; he certainly wasn't doing anything illegal; I don't even think he let anyone down really.  Boris Johnson's Tweet was probably the view of most people here - "The real scandal would be if you went all the way to Las Vegas and you didn't misbehave in some trivial way.'  So, again, had there not been a freedom of the press issue, imagined or otherwise, the pics were best kept private and the story hardly ought to have deserved so many pages.

But the final point (at least it is one made by The Sun) is whether the public interest was really served by publishing the photographs.  I think we ought to distinguish here between 'the public interest' and 'public interest'.  I think these are different things.  I don't rush out and buy The Sun when I hear that there is a scandalous pic published in it.  But if there is a story (or maybe even a photograph) in the newspaper I buy, which refers to something I didn't know about or which sheds light on something currently being debated publicy, I think it's fair to say that there is public interest in that item.  And I guess I am interested in seeing pics of famous people doing silly things, even if I don't rush out to get hold of them (the pics, not the famous people).  But the public interest is served only when the newspaper reveals something that has been kept from public knowledge - a revelation about secret or illegal activity, the real reason for a Government policy, a new tax that has an effect not publicly announced, etc.  I might actually rush out and buy a newspaper carrying that story.  But I don't think a pic of a naked Prince is in that league at all.  I don't even think that publishing the pic against requests for privacy is in the public interest.  I do think that having the courage to publishing something that has been suppressed, in the face of some sanction or legal action, is a noble and legitimate act.  The Sun's action was about something else.

In fact I think it's a great pity the story is still being written about and given airtime.  Oh . . .


  1. I'm not too bothered about the photos appearing in The Sun to be honest. Boys will be boys as they say and the Royal Family seem to shoot themselves in their collective foot fairly regularly.

    I think the thing that is rather worrying is that it could have been a gun or a knife that was pulled rather than a camera ... but, of course, it wasn't.

    I had, in fact, forgotten about the incident ... until I read your blog.

  2. No, I wasn't too bothered either. But I do think the questions raised by The Sun about public interest and privacy are interesting. And of course there is the online media v print media debate.