As the froth dissipates it is worth reflecting on what lessons the saga of the Prince Harry photographs has for the media regulation debate. There is a natural tendency to conclude that this is another passing “silly season” story – with as much wider significance as the Essex lion. After all Prince Harry holds no public office and the invasions of his privacy were relatively minor in the scheme of things. Such a conclusion would be too hasty. The absurd affair of Prince Harry’s bum is nevertheless a very clear and illuminating example of what remains wrong with the tabloid press and, we suggest, provides five important lessons for the media regulation debate.
First, there is no limit of logic or rationality to the bad public interest and press freedom arguments which the media is prepared to employ to justify (forgive the pun) naked self-interest. The publication of photographs of private party was, apparently with straight face, compared to Spycatcher and the abdication crisis. Our particular favourite was the argument that Sun readers had to be allowed to see the images because they had already seen them. Behind it all the basic, and obviously specious argument that anything available on the internet should be published in the press.
Second, the media does not understand privacy. The basic points are not very difficult. What happens in private is, er, private – it should not feature in the media unless there is some public interest justification for publication. Not just Prince Harry’s photographs but also his party did not meet that basic test. A party behind closed doors – to which the public is not invited – is something that the press should not be writing about without good reason. A generation of journalists and editors, brought up on a culture of casual privacy invasion just don’t get the point.
Third, and perhaps most obviously, the press pay no attention to the PCC or its editors code. Despite their public protestations of fidelity, when it comes to the commercial and titillation crunch the PCC is a dead letter. Everyone wrote about the party – in breach of clause 3 – for good measure telling people where to find the photographs on the internet (a further breach of the clause). The Sun chose to ignore an “advisory notice” from the PCC – on the grounds of “press freedom” (see lesson one).
Fourth, no opportunity will be lost to blame Lord Justice Leveson. His evil influence was, apparently, responsible for the shocking (and rare) phenomenon of editors obeying their own code. This absurd message was trotted out by the BBC – peddled by former tabloid editor Neil Wallis (arrested in the phone hacking investigation and awaiting a charging decision). We were told, without a shred of evidence, that there were numerous public interest stories that had been suppressed as a result of the Inquiry. There is a lot more of this nonsense to come over the next few months in the run up to the Leveson Part 1 Report. The riposte will need constant repetition: the Inquiry is not, and never has been, about shackling public interest journalism and its practitioners have nothing to fear from media regulation.
Fifth, when it comes to media regulation, the press wholly fail to reflect the views of their readers. Shortly after publication a poll indicated that 68% of readers thought that the Sun was wrong to publish the photographs. The Sun’s sister paper, the Sunday Times published a poll showing that 61% of respondents thought the Sun was wrong to publish the pictures and that 68% thought Harry’s behaviour was acceptable. However, as Brian Cathcart pointed out in a post on Inforrm, this did not impact on the way that the same newspaper reported the story:
“Like almost all of the national Sunday papers, with the exception of the Independent on Sunday, the Sunday Times chose to report and comment upon the Harry affair without giving any editorial space to anyone who expressed the opinion which, its own poll showed, 61 per cent of the country holds. Hardly a quote appeared from anyone giving what appears to be the majority view”.
The overall lesson of the Prince Harry story is that the British press still cannot be trusted with privacy. The message of phone hacking has still not sunk in. Press freedom is something to be used responsibly, for proper purposes. It is not a universal justification for misconduct and invasion of privacy. This silly season story tells us, once again, that effective media regulation is a necessity.