Another week, another royal photo scandal. The Duchess of Cambridge is the latest member of the British royal family to be captured in a compromising position. Topless photos of the duchess on holiday in the south of France with her husband Prince William were splashed across the cover of the French edition of Closer.
The couple are said to be both saddened and angered by the gossip magazine’s decision to publish the photos (seemingly taken with a long-lens camera) and the palace has issues a strongly worded statement comparing the intrusion to the press’s harassment of the late Princess of Wales.
Responding to what she called a “disproportionate reaction” to the images, French Closer’s editor in chief Laurence Pieau insisted that there was “nothing shocking” about the photos, which she describes as a “joyous” celebration of an attractive young couple in love. Pieau then dismisses the complaints of the British press as hypocritical, as certain sections of it published naked photos of the third in line to the throne barely two weeks ago.
Comparisons with the recent Prince Harry scandal are easy to make but the similarities start and end with a member of the royal family being snapped in a state of undress. Though the claim may be debatable, The Sun maintained that Prince Harry had no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ after inviting the individuals who took the photographs up to his hotel suite. It is difficult to see how a similar argument could be made to justify photos taken with a zoom lens of a couple on a private holiday, at a private residence.
While the pictures of Kate Middleton may be grainy, one thing that is clear is the British press’s love of scandal. Along with pieces condemning the circulation of the photos, tabloid and broadsheet titles alike have amassed an impressive trove of updates, videos, comment pieces and polls. The Daily Mirror and The Telegraph have even created liveblogs tasked with keeping readers abreast of any developments.
Reaction to the photos has been rather more muted in France’s national news titles. Le Figaro’s website carried an article noting somewhat ironically that the French celebrity mag has ‘outdone’ the British tabloids and Le Monde limits its homepage coverage of the incident to a link to an interview with Pieau. On Friday afternoon, hours after the news hit the headlines in Britain, there was no mention of the scandal on Libération’s homepage.
The French press has long been noted for its restraint in reporting on the private lives of public figures – as the families of François Mittérand can attest. There are however signs that the widely accepted practice of respecting the privacy of high-profile figures is on the wane. At the beginning of September French magazine VSD was forced to pay out €2000 to Valérie Trierweiler, live-in-companion of President Hollande after printing photos of her wearing a bathing suit whilst on holiday. A judge in Paris ruled that there was “no public interest in showing [images] of the companion of the president of the Republic… against her will.” According to French legal expert Jean-Frédéric Gaultier, partner at the Paris-based Olswang law firm, “if photos are published of a public person [in France], they must be from a public event they are attending in that role, and the story must relate to that too.” Mr Gaultier believe that while privacy laws are much stricter in France than in Britain, “we are getting less strict and Britain appears to be getting stricter.”
France’s constitution explicitly legislates against the “theft of personal image”, limiting the extent to which paparazzi images can be used and reproduced. St James’s Palace has confirmed that the royal couple will be taking legal action against the ‘editor and publisher of Closer magazine’, but it is questionable as to whether a lawsuit and ensuing fine will be enough to prevent a similar situation in the future. Speaking to The Guardian, French privacy law specialist Thomas Roussineau suggested that a financial pay out is a price many publications will be willing to pay in light of the heightened revenues scandalous scoops usually generate: "[Closer] have a big revenue, and the amount of the sentence will not equal the revenue they will make, it will be a very small part of the revenue they will have from these pictures”.