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24 August 2012

The Dangers of Let's Pretend

Have you seen the Prince Harry pics then?

Of course you have. Most people who want to have. But they've not been in the papers apart from The Sun, and because it's The Sun the debate about the decision to publish has split along tired and familiar battle lines.

It's a very British row. It has all the elements; Royalty, class and moral indignation about simple nudity - no-one has suggested Harry has been involved in a sex scandal or even, delving into the treasured lexicon of journalese, a romp.

It has a more sinister element in that it proves the press is currently cowed to a degree that would have been totally unthinkable pre-Leveson. That's worrying.

So, in deciding whether to publish the Harry pics, what factors should be taken into account?

We have an important question of privacy. 

Ethically and legally Harry is entitled to a private life in the privacy of his hotel room. Anyone snooping with a big lens from an adjacent hotel would be completely out of order. But the snapper wasn't a paparazzo - he or she was apparently a member of a group Harry chose to invite into his no-longer-private space. The party space he chose to create within his private space, not with a few known friends but with strangers he apparently met in and around the hotel pool. That raises questions about his judgement in who he chose to invite - and more importantly of security, in that someone capable of taking a cameraphone into the suite of the man who is third in line to the British Crown could, in theory, have equally taken a bug or a bomb.

There is unquestionably a matter of public interest.

More risibly, Royal spin doctors have requested that the pictures not be published.

Well, knock me down with a feather; that's a surprise. Next time I have some negative copy on anything I'll be sure to ask the relevant PRs if it fits in with their image strategy, OK?

The key issue however only emerges with a wider focus. Around Europe, the only readers prevented from seeing the pictures in their daily paper were in Britain. The French could smirk over their breakfast croissants.  The Germans could chortle over a mountain of ham and cheese. But back in Britain, where the pictures had more relevance, everyone decided to play a hypocritical game of 'let's pretend'.

Let's pretend if we don't print the pics in our paper the public won't see them. That's (if you'll pardon the expression) bollocks. I refer back to the first line of this piece. The internet is the public domain. Like the military, who lost control over what copy hacks could file when they lost control of remote communications after the Falklands conflict, establishment figures must come to terms with a new reality.

Let's pretend my paper is too responsible to print them. But let's do lots of op ed pieces anyway pretending we and our readers haven't seen the pics, when we have. And let's just drop a mention or two of the website that broke the story in case any punters have been keeping Curiosity company on Mars for the past 48 hours.

Let's pretend that this has nothing to do with the Leveson inquiry. Had this happened 18 months ago there is no doubt whatsoever the images would have been printed in most, if not all, papers including the posh titles.  But having been called to the headmaster's study, and with punishment for past misdeeds still awaited, the chill hand of Leveson has steered formerly fearless tabloids towards cowed subservience to the establishment's wishes.

And we can't pretend that doesn't matter. In the week that Hugh Grant, a man convicted of lewd acts with a prostitute in a public place whilst in a relationship, joins the board of Hacked Off, a lobby group aimed at challenging  a free press, the British national press has shown it collectively lacks what Harry almost, but not quite, shows off in the photos at the centre of the row.


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