Monday, 27 August 2012

Publication of Prince Harry photos exposes more than just a posh balls-up

Prince Harry may have been caught with his bum out this week but it will be the media who could be left stripped, naked and on the naughty step when Lord Leveson concludes his inquiry into media ethics. 

The paper's decision to publish photos of Prince Harry frolicking naked in a Las Vegas hotel room this week was yet another landmark point in which the rag has undermined the efforts of much of the rest of an industry which acts in both positive and pathetic ways simultaneously. 

The Sun's argument to publish the photos on its front page on Friday was 'well everyone else is doing it', claiming that 40 million users had viewed the photos online worldwide. However, that ignores the jurisdiction in which the paper operates. Smoking weed in public in the Netherlands is fine, here - rightly or wrongly - it's illegal so people, by and large, don't do it. Apply the same ruling to what The Sun has done and you see there can be no justification for its actions. The difficulty in governing online publications is also raging but that shouldn't impact on The Sun's position.

Managing editor David Dinsmore has praised the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Conduct, a flimsy document once described to me while studying journalism at university as a "worthless piece of paper which solely exists to prevent legislation". It is therefore unsurprising that Dinsmore who claims to have "thought long and hard" before slapping 'Heir it is' on a photo of a young lad having a night out that probably went a bit too far, supports it. 

The privacy clause of the PCC code states: "It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent" and the body has already received more than 800 complaints following The Sun's publication. 

The facts around Harry's supposed misdeamours and the interest around it are not up for debate. He's known as liking a party, he is in Las Vegas and anyone who has ever had to endure an evening listening to someone in Clapham talking about the "totes hilarity" of a bawdy rugby or skiing tour can tell you posh people frequently end up in these situations. Personally, I don't think it's newsworthy but of course to some people I know it is. I don't buy the 'Harry as a role model' or as a responsibility to represent Britain card, bollocks. I'm not a republican but am a realist. If you want a role model it's not going to be someone who has no notable skill, talent or reason to be famed but clearly Dinsmore has praised the PCC code with one hand and crumpled it up and thrown it into a big pot of cash with the other in ignoring the clause stated above. 

However, the timing of The Sun's decision amid perhaps the most controversial and crucial period in British journalism for two decades is extremely poor. Already, for the most part, battling against long term problems including the forces of online, alternative sources of entertainment and rising costs, the newspaper industry now faces the Leveson inquiry. The inquiry, which could last a further two years. aims to fully investigate media ethics in the UK and ensure tactics such as phone hacking are never employed again. The one beneficiary of the Harry photo debacle has been David Beckham, another Sun front page joke, who this week had rumours of his affair with Catherine Jenkins both denied and overshadowed.

Clearly the matter is wide ranging all the way from the positive way MP's were hunted out and exposed in the expenses scandal to the prevalence of brief quotes from anonymous sources being used to build a story upon. 

Ultimately it could spur Leveson on to clamp down on the media more firmly - some media lawyers who recently gave a talk at my office at magazine publisher Emap said that the inquiry is likely to make things much more difficult for journalists. And increase their case load. 

But there is also concern that it could make things more stringent for those seeking a public interest defence and genuine freedom of the press. If Leveson decides to pursue a legislation route you can expect more super injunctions, more cover ups and a weakened media industry ploughing more resources into fighting legislation. There are far more eloquent takes on the debate out there but the spotlight should remain on The Sun's flimsy and pathetic representation of British journalism.