A Duchess in Distress: What KateGate tells us about privacy in tabloid Britain

  It is safe to say I am not a Royalist. Indeed, scarcely little is safer to say. To say I am not a Royalist is somewhat akin to averring that the Bishop of Rome is indeed an adherent to the faith and principles of the Catholic Church and that animals of the genus ursus execute their bodily functions in tree-rich areas. But despite my raving, Communist, Loonie Left, socialize-the-sex-industry tendencies, last week I found myself agreeing with right wing commentators for once. I am referring of course to the furore surrounding the photographs of a topless Kate Middleton which appeared in the French version of Closer magazine. You see, I may always lean to the left side, like Vince Cable after a stroke, but I just can’t resist aiding a Duchess in Distress.

  I suspect, however, that my harmonisation with the right wing press was simply a happy coincidence. If I were to compose a Venn diagram of the situation, I imagine it would be composed of one large circle (people who care about everyone’s privacy, under which umbrella I fall) and within that circle, a smaller circle (people who care about Kate Middleton’s privacy). And, quite appropriately, that Venn diagram, if shaded pink, might look like the bare breast of a Duchess. Or maybe not, I haven’t actually seen the pictures. Perhaps I am cynical, but I imagine that the good people at the Daily Mail are less concerned with the privacy of a lesser, non-titled person. Certainly they don’t seem to have shown as much regard for Selma Blair (Who is she? Is she famous? Am I meant to know who she is?). Ms Blair features today in a story on MailOnline entitled ‘He's quite the handful! Selma Blair left embarrassed as son Arthur grabs at her breast.’ The story is illustrated by detailed photographs of Blair’s son undoing her blouse and exposing a fair amount of his mother’s bust. So apparently the Mail had no qualms in publishing these very private and potentially embarassing photographs, yet absolutely abhorred Closer’s decision to publish the Middleton pictures. Well, I’m sure some very sophisticated editorial decision-making went into the differentiation they made between these pictures and those of the Duchess which they so decried. (DISCLAIMER. THIS BLOG MAY CONTAIN SARCASM.)

  There is no doubt that people will always be interested in the life of the Royals, no matter what they do, but they are far from publicity-shy recluses. These people seem to excrete press releases, willingly and openly living their lives in the public eye. (If you might object and say that media attention on their lives is uninvited and forced upon them by a hungry press, I would direct you to the Queen’s own post-Diana decision to open the Royal Family up to such attention and media-package them). Such is the saturation of Royal publicity, the media can hardly plead starvation when caught digging around in the Royal dustbins round the back of Buckingham Palace. The family could not expose themselves any more, short of cutting out the middle man and sending Kate to The Sun for a Page 3 shoot.  But the point is that everyone, including members of the Royal Family, is entitled to a certain degree of privacy. If Kate had been sunning herself bare-breasted on the Queen’s jubilee yacht as it moved down the Thames, then perhaps we could agree that it is not a question of privacy. But long-lens shots taken without her notice? It’s surprising the French gutter press have cameras good enough to reach all the way up to the (justified) moral high ground.

  Perhaps some of the more noxious exponents of the dark arts of “journalism” would claim that the Royal Family’s willing to expose themselves justifies the press intrusion. Indeed these so called ‘Faustian Pacts’ came up so frequently during the recent Leveson enquiry that they seemed to have been accepted as standard practice in modern journalism. The understanding goes: papers help promote a celebrity’s image / TV show / megalomania and in return they are justified in doing whatever they please to that celebrity, intruding upon their life, hacking their phonecalls, intimidating their relatives, you name it. And it is fine, because they’ve brought it upon themselves; they knew what they were getting in for. Now, while the notion of Rebekah Brooks playing Mephistopheles to Kerry Katona’s Dr Faustus is one so irresistible I may well submit it to ITV3’s Commisioning Editor, I believe this so called ‘understanding’ is completely unjustified. Although I realise privacy laws in this country lag far behind those of other countries, a system in which we make judgements on someone’s privacy according to whether we think they are reaping what they have sown is frighteningly unsuitable for the job, like an asbestos onesy. It effectively divides people into two tiers, when the right to privacy must surely be inalienable and universal; it must apply both to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Kerry, Queen of Iceland, regardless of whether the self-serving press deem them to “have brought it on themselves”. Furthermore, the press’s self-regulation in this matter tends to lack rigour, for example in its pursuit of people who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. And how do they judge whether someone has ‘brought it on himself?’ In a Newsnight debate moderated by presenter Emily Maitlis, Steve Coogan, comedian, and Paul McMullan, ex News Of The World journalist and professional dick, touched on this issue:

MAITLIS: But the wider question is about using the tabloid press to put yourself out there.
COOGAN: … If the News Of The World never wrote another word about me, I’d be delighted. Or it’s successor, The Sun On Sunday; I don’t court them at all.
MCMULLAN: Yeah, you do. You walk down red carpet and you pose at the cameras…

  In McMullan’s view, if someone turns up to a film premiere and is photographed, they are “courting the press”, thereby justifying any and all intrusion into their private life. While McMullan is the very caricature of a contemptible, low-life tabloid journalist, almost Dickensian in his decrepitude and debasement, he is sadly an accurate stereotype, the unrespectable face of an unrespectable business, for whom ‘consent’ is largely a self-serving construct.

  The Kate story itself has been a rather cut and dry affair. Everyone (except for the editor of the French Closer) agrees that it the affair is an intolerable intrusion on the Duchess’ privacy. But the sharp contrast that it draws with other privacy cases provides a insight into the real attitude of the tabloid press towards the individual’s privacy. For the most part, they are of the opinion that privacy does not exist, or that there is no right to it. JK Rowling’s young daughter had no privacy when a photographer took pictures of her in a swimsuit on a beach, nor when another journalist slipped messages for her mother into the child’s school bag. Nor did Siena Miller, when journalists pursued her relentlessly, listening to her and her family’s messages. And of course, little needs to be said about the Milly Dowler case.

  The media’s fickle relationship with privacy was further revealed when, in a related story, Prince Harry was ‘caught’ cavorting naked with women in a Las Vegas hotel room. (The poor Queen. I bet she just wanted a quiet Jubilee). Nothing Harry did was illegal. Morally questionable, maybe in some people’s eyes (Not mine. Good on you, Harry, I say), but not illegal. The incident occurred in a private hotel room, an environment which, as the name suggests, confers the right to certain expectations of privacy. But not according to the Sun, which invoked two arguments for publishing the photographs. First we had the pubic interest, sorry, public interest defence. What possible bearing a game of Royal strip poker might have on the public interest eludes me, unless it involved Charles and Camilla, in which case it is a crime against humanity and should be referred to The Hague. Then we had what seemed to be the joke excuse: The Sun, they claimed, was justified in publishing the photographs because they were already available elsewhere.

 Well, hallelujah! Great news! Maybe now the Guardian can replace those endless Polly Toynbee columns with hardcore pornography and the Telegraph will start printing instructions on how to build home-made fertiliser bombs, because, after all, it’s all available already on the internet. No ambition to aspire to a level or an ideal of morality! Let’s all just lower ourselves to the basest denominator. This argument carries less weight than Keira Knightly’s exquisite cheekbones. It brutally exposed The Sun’s one and only motivation for publishing any story or photographs: sales. Although other tabloid newspapers did not run the Harry photos, and it would be wrong to imply by omission that they did, it is worth remembering that their restraint is liable to be born less of regard towards privacy and more of a keen awareness that Lord Leveson is soon to publish his report on ethics in the press. Perhaps the tabloids have indeed been muzzled for a short while, but I don’t imagine it’ll be long before they’re back crapping in our kitchens again. And why? Because we invited them in, didn’t we? We asked for it. We opened the doors with our flirtatious press conferences and we laid out little tidbits by actually going so far as to appear in public. It’s our own damn fault.

  So what is privacy in England? Well, it’s whatever its invaders deem it to be. Kate gets privacy, of course, she’s a Duchess. Topless photos of her? What an outrage! But what about the DJ Sarah Cox when The People published topless photos of her in 2003? What about Paul Gascoigne and his nervous breakdowns, mercilessly chronicled and ridiculed? What about Hugh Grant and his daughter? What about Milly Dowler? How much is privacy worth these days? To the tabloids, as much as they can sell it for.  


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