Comment: The web will ruin Leveson’s attempts to block topless Kate pictures

By Padraig Reidy

Would the Leveson inquiry's recommendations stop the publication of pictures such as those of the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless?

Former BBC chair Michael Grade has suggested not. Is he right? The truth is that no one, apart from Lord Justice Leveson and his advisers, really knows yet. In spite of the jostling for position currently taking place, we can only speculate what the inquiry will come up with.

Anti-hacking campaigners and now the National Union of Journalists hope that a new regulatory body will come with some kind of statutory underpinning, though most are keen to point out that a regulator should be independent of government. Others, including the major newspaper publishers grouping together as the Free Speech Network, will resist any legal basis for regulation, insisting that industry regulation is the only way to ensure a free, vigorous press. Index is calling for Leveson to protect press freedom with improved self-regulation through more accountable newsroom management.

It is worth noting that while the pictures of Kate Middleton were not published in Britain, they were published in Ireland. The Irish Press Council is a curious hybrid of independent regulation backed up with an ombudsman system, created under the threat of a draconian privacy law.

When the Irish Daily Star published the topless Kate pics, justice minister Alan Shatter was critical of the paper, and threatened to revive the shelved privacy law. The paper even briefly faced closure after UK-based part-owner Richard Desmond threatened to pull the plug.

But Grade’s point was not just about newspapers, and this is where arguments about Leveson's recommendations hit a problem. As Index has asked from the start of the inquiry: what does the judge do about the web?

When pictures of Prince Harry naked at a party in Las Vegas surfaced, most people saw them online before there was even a debate about whether the press should print them.

Readers, be honest: how many of you saw the pictures of Kate Middleton sans bikini top? And how many of you saw them on in a newspaper or magazine?

Most people who saw the pictures viewed them online, and not on official newspaper sites. In fact it's doubtful most people who searched for the images actually knew which page they viewed them on. It’s hard to imagine what recommendations Leveson could come up with that stop sites showing material that is not actually illegal, short of wholesale blocking, of the kind which the British government routinely and rightly condemns when carried out by more authoritarian regimes.

While Leveson can make suggestions for the British newspapers, the arguments about publication, privacy, taste and ethics range far beyond the press in this country.

Padraig Reidy is News Editor for Index on Censorship, writing about free expression issues that include digital freedom, offence, public order and press freedom.

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