John McLellan, ex-Scotsman editor and former member of the Press Complaints Commission gives us his thoughts on the publication of topless pictures of The Duchess of Cambridge. John wrote this article for The Drum prior to the confirmation from St James's Palace that Kate and William had decided to sue Closer magazine
In the spirit of research for this article, you understand, I entered “Kate Middleton Closer” in Google Images and in a second I had full view of the grainy pictures of a topless Duchess of Cambridge as they have appeared in the French version of Closer magazine.
As a reader of a media website I’ll be surprised if you too have not at least attempted to see for yourself what all the fuss is about. It takes no leap of imagination to expect that thousands, if not millions, of people have done the same thing in their work breaks..
It was the same with the pictures of a Prince Harry romping naked with new-found female friends on his Las Vegas lads holiday.
But while there are obvious similarities – photographer snaps naked royal and privacy is breached when millions see pictures on the internet -- the issues at stake have significant differences.
With Harry we had a young single man on the lash with his pals behaving in a very unprincely manner with people he hardly knew, shortly after frolicking in the very public hotel pool and in the process raising very serious issues about his security.
Kate, on the other hand, is a newly-married young woman enjoying a relaxing and obviously loving moment with her husband on holiday in a private chateau miles from any other member of the public.
Harry clearly compromised himself while Kate did not, yet on both occasions the outrage was that the photographers involved, either an opportunistic groupie of a determined paparazzo, had committed a gross breach of privacy no matter what the circumstances and that others had given them wider circulation.
So too have the pictures been splashed all over the internet so that despite any stance British newspaper editors and broadcasters take, a huge chunk of the British public will now all have seen a topless Duchess of Cambridge, whether to their delight or disgust.
In refusing to rule on over 3,000 complaints about The Sun’s publication of the Harry pictures (and I suspect more than one or two about The Drum’s decision to do the same) the Press Complaints Commission argued that it would be impossible to investigate without the consent of the injured party, but in so doing probably (but unfairly) added weight to the argument the PCC remains relatively out of touch with public sentiment.
The crux of those complaints was that the publications should be held to account for the breach of a young, single off-duty soldier’s privacy and the strong counter to that was that thanks to the internet there was no privacy left to breach and there was public interest in the wild behaviour of the third in line to the throne.
On that basis, it can be argued for the sake of moral consistency The Sun and The Drum should publish the Kate pictures. In harsh logical terms it could be claimed there is little moral difference between the two situations. For once thing, it is clear the publication of the pictures have caused both royal parties extreme anger and embarrassment.
The crucial difference is that of basic modesty and responsible behaviour. Which young woman would not be horrified if pictures of her sunbathing topless in a private place became an internet sensation? Conversely, which role model, army officer Prince of the Realm would genuinely think it appropriate to play strip billiards with total strangers?
There are similarities with the other Royal privacy cases of over 20 years ago. Diana was doing nothing inappropriate when she was snapped by a remote camera in her exercise gear in a private gym. But The Duchess of York was caught topless in a compromising situation with a man who was not her husband four years before her divorce.
And of course for Prince William, this will be an all-too painful reminder of what happened to his mother when she became the subject of intense interest from a Paparazzo on French soil.
The key test is that of public interest; the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge are of considerable interest for the public but I find it impossible to argue their publication is in the public interest. Her behaviour is not inappropriate, she had an obvious expectation of privacy and they certainly didn’t reveal anything we didn’t know other than she likes an all-over tan. Given the interest in the way she looks, maybe that’s understandable.
So despite the moral consistency argument, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Kate gracing Page Three of The Sun anytime soon.
What this episode again throws into sharp relief is that for all the talk of Press standards in the UK, it is impossible to regulate access to the internet and it is pointless to even consider how publications and journalists in other countries operate, especially when even the infamous French privacy laws are ineffective.
So too does it illustrate that just because British media won’t use such pictures of British celebrities there isn’t a world market for them.
That is not to say the instinct to publish here is not still alive (would pictures of a topless Carla Bruni taken in France appear in a British paper?), just that the repercussions would be too great to take the risk. If some of the reaction to the Harry pictures was rather po-faced, imagine what would happen on this occasion.
Would similar pictures of Diana have appeared unaltered in a British paper 25 years ago.? Almost certainly. Publish now and inevitably be damned.
Ex-Scotsman editor John McLellan is a former member of the Press Complaints Commission and is now director of communications for the Scottish Conservatives and an honorary professor in Stirling University’s media studies department
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