Comment: Naked Harry pics made a great story

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index on Censorship
Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index on Censorship

By Marta Cooper

A week ago Britain's most popular tabloid printed photos of a 27-year-old soldier on leave naked during a party in his hotel room. It was the only British paper to do so.

Except he wasn't just any 27 year old. He was Prince Harry, the third in line to the throne. And these weren't just any pictures, but pictures that been splashed over the internet and international papers for 24 hours and seen by millions.

The interest when looking at the images on a computer screen turned into condemnation of an invasion of privacy when they were printed on the Sun's front page: the Press Complaints Commission has so far received 3,600 complaints about them.


At a time when our papers are awaiting the findings of the Leveson inquiry into press standards, which will propose a new system of press regulation, the Harry saga throws up some interesting questions about the tricky balance between privacy and stories in the public interest, as well as highlighting the battleground between print and online.

The Sun argued that it was in the public interest to publish, saying its readers had a "right" to see the photos. It might be a rather borderline argument, but one that can be made nonetheless. The redtop added it was "absurd" that in a digital age newspapers could be stopped from publishing images that were already widely available online. This is one of the many dilemmas facing Lord Justice Leveson as he prepares his autumn report: how to regulate the British press in the online age.

Of course, there is a range of content online no newspaper editor would dream of publishing. Nor does widespread publication elsewhere automatically give editors the green light to print.

But in choosing to print the pictures regardless of St James's Palace's letter last Wednesday that suggested publication would be in contravention of article 3 of the PCC code (which covers privacy), the Sun was doing what tabloids do and publishing a great story.

It's a sensitive time. The past year has been tumultuous for the press due to the phone hacking scandal revealed in summer 2011, which led to the closure of the News of the World and the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry. The hearings have revealed some deplorable tactics (the McCanns, desperate in the search for their missing daughter, were accused by some redtops of killing her and freezing her body) through to allegedly criminal offences and has at times bordered on ludicrous scrutiny (a Mail on Sunday reporter was asked by the inquiry if using the words "at last" in a headline represented a degree of comment or opinion).

Besides a justifiable drop in public trust in the press as a result of phone hacking, there also seems to have been a chill on the freedom of our papers to report. This spring crime reporters lamented that previously open channels of communication had been shut down in the wake of the inquiry. One crime editor compared a passage of the Filkin report on press-police relations to an "an East German Ministry of Information manual".

Yet, against the backdrop of evidence heard by Leveson, some might see the Prince Harry photos as yet another example of needing to rein in the "feral beasts". But calls for a privacy law in this country need to be contextualised within the range of other laws that already work against journalism, namely our chilling libel laws and the variety of offences that do not carry a public interest defence, such as the Official Secrets Act, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or Computer Misuse Act. A tort of privacy in this country would merely add to this already heavy melange of legislation.

Instead of a rush to statutory involvement, our current system of self-regulation can be improved by offering quick and fair complaint resolution and the new body setting and monitoring high standards. Unlike its predecessor, the PCC, it will need teeth to deal with unwarranted breaches of privacy and false allegations.

No press is perfect. It does not exist. We'll always be dealing with balancing acts where controversial stories are published alongside those that expose wrongdoing.

That is the price we pay for freedom.

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @martaruco

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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