Harry pics leave press outstripped
A leading member of the royal family has been partying in the nude and there are photographs to prove it. Tabloid dynamite. Or so you would think. Fifteen years ago, the red-tops would have stopped at nothing to get their hands on the pics and splash them all over the front page.
Today not a single British paper has published photos of a naked Prince Harry, even though they were already available for all the world to see on the internet.
How to explain this? For many, one simple word will suffice: Leveson. The newspapers are desperate to show how clean and sensible they all are to ensure that Lord Justice Leveson’s report goes easy on them, and recommends some sort of regulation that isn’t too different from the status quo. That seems plausible. British newspapers are timid pussycats a year after Wapping’s most feral beast was put down.
But it’s also questionable whether even before Leveson the newspapers could have justified this story as being in the public interest. Harry was at a private party. He took his clothes off. Big deal. Why is that our business? Well, you could argue that as the third in line to the throne and a major public figure he deserves greater scrutiny than the man in the street. And at least some taxpayer money was being spent out there, for instance on Harry’s police protection officer.
There’s an important debate to be had here and in every similar scenario where publication compromises privacy. How can this slippery phrase 'the public interest' be defined? That’s the subject of a Demos report to be published this autumn, in which we’ve asked the public themselves what sort of stories they think should or should not be published, and we’ve come up with some thoughts about how the public might become better engaged in the regulatory system.
In the case of Harry, newspapers might have been tempted to publish and be damned. In the 1990s, when the royal family’s antics provided a non-stop red-top soap opera, they’d have used the pictures in a flash.
Three factors probably stayed their hands in 2012. Firstly: this is the royal family we’re talking about. Since the palace’s post-Diana rehabilitation, the press has generally behaved cautiously and respectfully to the royal family. And in this case Clarence House was proactive, contacting the Press Complaints Commission to remind the press of Harry’s right to privacy. Secondly: they would have been leaving themselves open to a claim for breach of privacy – under the judge-made law that has developed out of the Human Rights Act. And finally, readers might not actually have liked it: Harry is more popular than the average tabloid newspaper.
The main lesson from this episode is that the self-regulating press now operates in a different world from the boundless riot of the internet. Anyone who wants to see the photos already has. Whoever sold them went to a website, not to a newspaper. The papers were always second to this story and now they can’t even run it properly because they’ve been forced to inhabit a parallel universe, a state of affairs they clearly resent.
No one has any idea how to regulate the internet. And yet it is at this moment that tighter regulation is envisaged for those media organisations that have historically printed on paper. For newspapers that have always depended on titillation to sell copies, it’s an agonising predicament – the better they behave, the more irrelevant they risk seeming.