It is only one tabloid front page, but symbolically it may well have a part to play in shaping the future of British newspapers - which are suffering from declining revenues and shrinking readerships
A thousand complaints lodged with the Press Complaints Commission, two prominent Conservative Party politicians at loggerheads on Twitter
and the United Kingdom's biggest newspaper running with the tagline 'you've seen them on the internet already'. This is a thoroughly modern furore. The Sun
newspaper's decision to break rank and become the first British media outlet to publish naked photographs of Prince Harry has created a public space in which the competing interests of post-Leveson Fleet Street can lock horns. That the first move was made by Rupert Murdoch should come as no surprise, after all, many of his publications have a history of skirting the edges of legal privacy. However, for many the lasting impact of this latest move will come in its confirmation that for all of the talk of reform, print media is not content to be the prim sidekick to the carefree world of online platforms.
The decision to publish had been bullishly described by the paper as an "editorial choice made in the face of clear public interest". And yet for many, Max Clifford included, this argument is a smokescreen. That the "public interest" justification has still gained significant traction amongst commentators and policy-makers hints strongly that the real battle being fought is much broader - namely the redrawing of boundaries in the wake of a significant shift in public attitude to print ethics.
The veracity of the public interest argument is certainly flimsy enough to suggest that many people are adopting it solely in order to row back from an imagined future in which freedom of the press has been fatally compromised by privacy laws. In and of itself, this may well be a debate worth having, but this side of the argument is in danger of being totally derailed by hitching its horse to this particular cart.
When one considers that The Sun
itself has lost a number of high profile legal cases, which would seem to have a far sturdier claim to have been in the public interest - it is hard not to be left with the sneaking suspicion that they have weighed up the metaphorical impact of running the story and thought that now was as good a time as any to start the kickback against privacy guidelines. After all, they were only ever accepted extremely reluctantly.
What is certain is that there is an uncomfortable relationship between public interest and public appetite. There is little question that The Sun
will have received a much needed boost to circulation on the back of running the story, going some way to proving the public desire to see the content in the first place. Although, it is all too easy for the lines to be blurred between public interest as legally defined and titillation geared toward generating profit. The two are not mutually dependent and the existence of one in no way proves the existence of the other, if the language of public discourse on the issue fails to uphold this distinction then the quality of resolution will inevitably suffer.
There is certainly a sense that the lines of privacy will be contested and redrawn with increasing regularity over the coming months and years – as internet access becomes more commonplace and the relationship between social and traditional media evermore symbiotic, the boundaries of the public domain seem in a permanent state of flux. When Roy Greenslade suggested that in future, tabloid ethics will be defined by social media
, he is, among other things rightly highlighting the potential problems that will continue to arise when an international medium cuts across national legal boundaries.
The Press Complaints Commission has yet to comment on the case specifically, referring only to generic procedure in the wake of any complaints it may receive. However, in the Prince Harry pictures they may well be seeing the stark reality of a debate that shows no sign of reaching a definitive conclusion. It is only one front page, but symbolically it may well have an amplified part to play in shaping the uncertain future of British newspapers. Keiran Goddard is an author, journalist and communications consultant