“We fight for press freedom”: these are the words with which The Sun newspaper accompanied photos of a naked Prince Harry, defying royal aides who had threatened British media organisations tempted to republish the photos with legal action.
Despite having initially complied with requests on Wednesday from Prince Charles’s lawyers not to print the photos, the tabloid decided late on Thursday that it would print them, and explained its decision in an editorial piece published with alongside the photos. The front page article claims that it was in the "public interest" to introduce readers of The Sun’s print edition to images of the third-in-line to the throne playing "strip billiards," “in order for the debate around them to be fully informed.”
It’s not the first time a news media organisation has angered the royal family by printing photos of its members during intimate moments, but it is the most high-profile privacy argument to hit the British news industry since the start of the Leveson Inquiry. The incident places the editorial practices of one of News International’s flagship newspapers under the spotlight at the same time that Elizabeth Murdoch used her speech at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture to criticize her father’s News Corporation for failing to “discuss, affirm and institutionalize a rigorous set of values, based on an explicit statement of purpose.”
Ms. Murdoch sought to distance herself from her brother James by rejecting his statement that “the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit,” suggesting instead that “profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.” Her criticisms of News Corp for its role in the phone-hacking scandal did not prevent Ms. Murdoch showing support for her father, praising him for having “the vision, the will and the sense of purpose to challenge the old world order.” Murdoch’s public affirmation of admiration for her father led Independent reporter Ian Burrel to ask whether this was Murdoch’s “pitch to take over.” Ms Murdoch’s insistence that a dearth of integrity was threatening newsrooms from within does not mean that she was against The Sun’s printing photos taken of Prince Harry in a private hotel room. Indeed, Ms Murdoch opined that it would be “very sad if you lived in a world where you can’t publish that picture. We have all seen the pictures online. If newspapers can’t participate in that, it asks questions of where print and online should go.”
After U.S. based gossip site TMZ posted the photos in question online this Wednesday, news editors in Britain were discouraged from following suit by the Press Complaints Commission, which suggested that printing the images could breach clause three of the PCC’s code, which states that using photos of people taken in private settings is “unacceptable.”
It is questionable as to what extent The Sun’s "public interest" argument holds water (is it ever possible to have a ‘right’ to see someone naked’?), but it is nonetheless interesting to note that the PCC’s behaviour in the matter is rather at odds with a ruling it handed down on a similar issue that hit the headlines three years ago. The Commission ruled in favour of a magazine that had published photos of a woman taken from a social networking site without her permission, concluding: “the Commission felt that the images were so widely established for it to be untenable for the Commission to rule that it was wrong for the magazine to use them.” The same statement now provides the basis for The Sun’s defence of its decision. It is arguable that the fact that the injured party in this case is a member of the royal family has caused the PCC to act more decisively against newspapers, but it ought not to be forgotten that as Lord Justice Leveson begins to draw conclusions from his inquiry into press practices, the frequently criticized self-regulatory body will be aiming to demonstrate that it is capable of being an effective enforcer of a standard code of ethics. That said, The Sun’s rejection of PCC advice suggests that this may not be the case.