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Thursday, August 23, 2012 

It's the end of the free press as we know it!

Neil Wallis is, Kirsty Wark reminded us on Newsnight last night, still on bail after being arrested in connection with phone hacking. Rather than being humbled by this chastening experience (and Wallis is of course completely innocent of any involvement with what went on at the News of the World until proven otherwise), Wallis, alongside the ubiquitous Kelvin MacKenzie was everywhere yesterday claiming that the only reason that no newspaper had taken it upon themselves to republish the naked photographs of Prince Harry enjoying a game of strip pool in Las Vegas was terror of Lord Brian Leveson and what he might say should they do so. The end of a free press they warned! The triumph of the "unpopular" press over the popular! What delight for the BBC! The same BBC, it should be said, which invited both Wallis and Max Clifford (and Vanessa Feltz) on to discuss this latest journalistic crisis.

Instead, as we learned today, fear of Leveson played only the very slightest of roles, if one at all. As anyone could have guessed, it was St James's Palace that had the real chilling effect. Relying on the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, the same code which has remained unchanged on privacy since long before Leveson was convened, royal aides pointed out that the code prohibits the publication of photographs where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, especially when photographs have been taken without the person's consent. A hotel room is clearly a private place, and we simply don't know whether or not Harry consented to the taking of the photos; one suspects he may not have even known, as they look to have been taken without flash and are extremely blurry. The Daily Mail reports that a "minder" told one of those taking photographs not to, and they may well have even asked them to delete them, underlining the apparent lack of consent.

The rules on expectation of privacy are not new. The News of the World was reprimanded by the PCC way back in 1995 when it ran photographs of Charles Spencer's then wife walking in the grounds of a clinic, leading an embarrassed Rupert Murdoch to chastise then editor Piers Morgan. It's also hardly the first time that royal aides or their lawyers have stepped in to ask newspapers to moderate their behaviour, although this might be the first time they've issued a pre-emptive strike as it were. The media were asked to respect Kate Middleton's privacy when the paparazzi were making a habit of following her around every day, as they were more recently when the same treatment was being meted out to her sister, Pippa.

The real "villains" of this piece then are Harbottle and Lewis, as are the PCC, who passed on their view that publication of the photographs would be a breach of part 3 of the editor's code. Indeed, while the Mail and the Sun both complain that they've been in effect "banned" from publication, neither has put any direct blame on Leveson, even if both have quoted certain figures claiming the inquiry has had a role. The Mail doesn't so much as mention the furore in today's leader column, while the Sun merely makes a joke of the whole thing. And this isn't out of fear of Brian, either: representatives from both the Sun and Mail complained during the inquiry that they risked being scooped by the internet should privacy restrictions be made even more draconian. In this case, they've been stopped by the old PCC code they've long been signed up to.

In any case, by the time today's papers went to press the whole thing was already old news. TMZ posted the pictures up early on Wednesday morning our time, meaning the vast majority of people who would have wanted to see them had already done so by last night. Any additional revenue they might have brought in would have been through advertising clicks, not extra sales, had editors decided to be publish and be damned before they heard from the palace. There also isn't any real great scandal here which would have warranted publication through the public interest defence: much as I resent the fact that it's our tax money allowing Harry to live the high life, protected as he is by Scotland Yard's most lucky, it's not as if he's been caught in flagrante in the middle of an orgy, just stark bollock naked having a bit of fun. The sad reality is that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are perfectly happy for the monarchy to continue to function in the style to which it has become accustomed, and it's the institution that remains objectionable, rather than the inbreds that represent it. Oh, and drop the nonsense about Leveson meaning the end of press freedom Neil and friends, yes?

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For somebody who strips off in front of complete strangers to cite "violation of privacy" would be, like Harry himself, a bit rich. As for public interest, I don't think that the royal family seem to know what is in the public interest. If William dies prematurely and without issue, Harry will be head of the church of England. A bit undignified to have pictures of his hairy arse all over the internet...

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