So there you have it. We spend a whole year discussing press ethics and then, for the sake of a peek at Prince Harry’s bum, half the world seems ready to say that the editor of the Sun can make up his own ethics.
No, this is not about the freedom of the press. Nor is it about print versus internet. And it is not about the public’s ‘right’ to see pictures of Harry’s bum either. It is about mob rule and the right of large newspaper corporations to do whatever they like.
It is about mob rule because the Sun is claiming that it has the right to do something that is wrong on the grounds that other people (on the internet) are doing something wrong. That is what looters said after last summer’s riots – ‘I thought it was OK to steal stuff because everybody else was stealing.’ As the Sun itself pointed out last summer, that is no excuse for wrongdoing.
And it is about large newspaper corporations doing what they like because it shows that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the industry’s tailor-made self-regulator, has no sway whatsoever over the industry. As was demonstrated many times at the Leveson Inquiry, it is a pretend regulator and no more.
The PCC Code says it is unacceptable to photograph people in private places without their consent. It is obvious that to publish such photographs is equally unacceptable, if not more so. This was pointed out to the Sun and other papers, and yet the Sun has published. What will be the consequence of this breach of the code? There will be none, because the PCC is toothless.
The Sun is saying here that it is above the law, above regulation, above ethics. It is saying that it can do whatever it likes. And for the sake of Harry’s bum, a lot of people seem to be prepared to accept this.
Implicit in much of the discussion is that Prince Harry has a diminished right to privacy because he is royal, and that ordinary people are not affected by the Sun’s actions. This is untrue and misleading. The entire experience of the Leveson Inquiry shows us that newspapers don’t discriminate: they will screw you and me just as readily as they will screw the prince.
Most phone hacking victims were not famous. They were just people who crossed the path of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Most of the targets of the criminal investigator Steve Whittamore, who breached privacy on an industrial scale for newspapers, were ordinary people too. The Dowlers are ordinary. The McCanns are ordinary. The victims of Soham and Dunblane were ordinary.
The owners and editors of the big national papers want the freedom to intrude on the lives of such people, of anybody they choose, in whatever way they like, and they are exploiting these pictures to ensure they get it. This they are dressing up as an issue of freedom of the press.
What is at stake is not Harry’s bum. What is at stake, now and over the months to come, is whether we want another 20 years or unrestrained press abuses against innocent people or whether we are ready to restrain the small number of wealthy media corporations that are so ready to trample on the rights of princes and paupers alike.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart