The Mail and the naked prince
by Brian Cathcart
More than anyone else, it seems, the Daily Mail is furious about Harry. The Express, in an editorial on the prince’s adventures in Las Vegas, concludes: ‘Good luck to him.’ A Mirror writer observes: ‘. . . these pictures have just made me like him even more.’ The Sun’s leader carried a headline making a joke out of the prince’s game of strip billiards: ‘Cue laughter.’ But the Mail is at Defcon 1 on the indignation scale, devoting its first five pages to the story and leading with the headline ‘Palace fury at Harry naked Photos’.
There is a ‘firestorm’ about the pictures, the paper declared in paragraph one, though it seemed to have some difficulty locating this firestorm. The Queen is ‘shocked’, it announced (without providing a source for the assertion), but what is she shocked by? Not, it turns out when you read on, her grandson’s behaviour, but ‘the publication of the pictures’.
Is Harry in trouble? A neat paragraph stated: ‘Despite reports that he would be dragged up to Scotland to explain himself in person to both his grandmother and his father… royal sources said they were not aware of this.’ So no, he’s not in trouble.
Has Harry let down the army? Alas, precious little support could be found for that argument either, though unnamed ‘military sources’ were quoted saying he ‘could face a stern dressing-down’. That’s ‘could’, not ‘will’ or ‘is likely to’, and that’s the best the Mail could do. So probably not.
Has he jeopardised his own safety? The Mail had a go, speculating about where the prince’s ‘taxpayer-funded police protection officer’ had worn his gun while in the pool with Harry, but there was no help from the head of the Met, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who just said it wasn’t the officer’s duty to regulate Harry’s life.
And infuriatingly for the Mail the prince isn’t even grovelling, but is reported by unnamed friends to be ‘fairly bullish’ and ‘not eating an awful lot of humble pie’.
So what is left, if the firestorm is just a balloon of hot air? In fact something big and solid is left: the Mail’s fury that it has been told not to publish the pictures. That is the real message of those first five ranting, prurient pages. They are telling us that everybody else – all these sleazy websites and American newspapers – is allowed to publish them, but not us, not the British press. And it’s not fair.
Why, you might ask, does the Mail want to publish the pictures? Plainly it takes the view that the prince has done something wrong (or ‘shocking’, to use Amanda Platell’s word), otherwise there can be no explanation for five whole pages of huffing and puffing. No one reading them could conclude otherwise than that the Mail firmly believes that princes should not drink and take their clothes off at parties in Las Vegas.
So if the Mail disapproves, why does it want to show pictures of the activities it disapproves of? Why does it want to print pictures of the naked prince? What grounds does it offer to justify its demand?
Interestingly, absent from the list of people and things the Mail is cross about is the guest at the party who took the pictures and gave or sold them to a celebrity website. You’ll find an excellent account of the privacy implications of this affair here, and it is also worth nothing that the Press Complaints Commission code of practice – written by editors, no less – declares plainly that: ‘It is unacceptable to photograph people in private places without their consent.’
If it is unacceptable to take such pictures it is surely unacceptable to sell them and publish them. And if the Mail believes it is justified in doing something that is normally unacceptable simply because it can see other people around it doing that thing, then perhaps it should reconsider its coverage of last summer’s riots, when thousands of people looted shops for no better reason than that they could see other people doing it.
The Mail even attempts to call in aid the Abdication Crisis, when ‘Edward VIII’s affair with the married Wallis Simpson went unreported for months in Britain in 1936 while newspapers in the US and Europe gleefully revealed the details’. The analogy is entirely false: in 1936 a serious constitutional issue was at stake and the papers ought to have published the story, but instead, in a gross collective abuse of their power, they voluntarily conspired to cover it up.
In fact there is another past member of the royal family whose experience with the press is far more relevant to this present argument than Edward VIII’s, but somehow the Mail does not find room to invoke her name. She is Harry’s mother, Diana.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart