From Kate to the 96, can the British press learn lessons?Posted on

The outrage of the British press, in the light of the French Closer magazine’s publication of surreptitiously taken photographs of Kate Middleton, makes for interesting reading. Some would say it’s a refreshing post-Leveson change of approach, others would (more cynically) describe it as outrageous hypocrisy calculated to seduce the paying public … and Lord Justice Leveson.

The fact that the subject is Kate Middleton, so well loved by the British public, is surely a determining factor. The Mirror said, on the subject, The Mirror was offered pictures of Kate in her bikini on the same balcony a week ago but chose not to publish them on the grounds of privacy. It’s a shame that the same publisher didn’t take the same approach in 2001 when the People published naked photographs of the Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox at a private villa, on a private island on her honeymoon. Cox sued and the Mirror Group settled the case but the damage was done.

Newspapers will always anticipate, and at times dictate, the public reaction to a situation. Given Kate’s status the British press has rightly anticipated public outrage. The Sun has led with a school teacher’s tone, lecturing its readers on the law of privacy:

YOU will not be seeing in The Sun those topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge published by a French magazineno decent British paper would touch with a bargepole

[Kate] was on a private holiday in a private chateau. The path from which the photographer took his pictures was a mile away. She had every expectation of privacy.

Nor is there the slightest public interest in publishing this set of intimate pictures in such circumstances.

It’s nice to hear that The Sun has taken this approach, however, the other content in today’s edition doesn’t really add up to the same level of caution. Take, for example, a piece entitled “When celebs boob on the red carpet”. The Sun takes website readers through a gallery of photographs of well known women who have unwittingly revealed more flesh than they wished to – usually a breast or nipple. No such restraint shown by the Sun in these circumstances. The Sun would of course argue that this can be differentiated. These women were appearing at public functions. True, but it also clear (because that is the very nature of a mistake or a “wardrobe malfunction”) that none of these women consented to the publication of their breasts, nipples or bras. The Sun went ahead and published anyway.

Lord Goff, talking about confidentiality in the Spycatcher case, said

“it is well settled that a duty of confidence may arise … where an obviously confidential document is wafted by an electric fan out of a window into a crowded street, or where an obviously confidential document, such as a private diary, is dropped in a public place, and is picked up by a passer by”

Where confidentiality is concerned a publisher isn’t allowed a windfall just because someone accidentally drops a confidential document. The same must be true in privacy. Just because a strap breaks or a dress slips doesn’t mean that a photograph must focus his lens and snap away or, indeed, that a picture editor should give the ok for publication. An obviously private or intimate image should be protected by the law of privacy even if, by some accident, it is revealed. Publication of intimate photographs without consent is unlawful.

The Sun has learned some harsh lessons in the last week, some 23 years too late, and reports suggest that their readership dipped heavily after the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report.

It has been a bad year for tabloids – today they have made the right noises about an extremely popular princess – but how will they deal with the every day stories about every day people? That is the true test for a responsible press.



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