There are times when I wonder if we’re being had; if some things that we shake our heads at in disbelief are, indeed, intended to do precisely that, rendering us impotent in the face of them.
A case in point is the latest furoré surrounding Prince Harry – and more to the point, the claims of the Sun to be championing freedom of the press by publishing the already infamous pictures of him in the altogether.
This was followed by The Dirty Digger himself tweeting a sort of ‘keep yer pecker up’ message to the doubtlessly somewhat red-faced royal himself. Except, of course, since it was a tweet, it was public And it didn’t involve any sort of apology.
To top it all, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has told the BBC that: “I don’t think it's right for politicians to tell newspaper editors what they can and can't publish”.
My ironyometer has just whimpered and given up the ghost.
The theory is that British newspapers cannot simply publish anything and everything. In the case of privacy, they have to have a public interest.
Now the fact that the pictures of Harry were already to be found on the internet doesn’t actually change that.
Nor does the whinging and whining from some in the tabloid world that they’re ‘under attack’ and ‘journalism has gone to the dogs’ because of Lord Leveson’s inquiry into media ethics.
Let’s be clear: trashy ‘celebrity’ gossip and stories are not ‘great journalism’. And – the real nitty gritty – there is rarely anything to suggest that such things are in the public interest.
Because the public interest is not a synonym for some of the public are interested.
A quick example.
Some years ago – in 1992, to be precise – Tim Yeo was a junior minister in John Major’s government.
At the Conservative Party conference that autumn, he stood up and railed against single parents. He’d made other comments, in public, about the importance of the family.
Yet before the year was out, Yeo was revealed to be having an affair (he was married) and the single woman that he was having an affair with was pregnant by him.
Now that story was in the public interest, since it revealed a politician indulging in the classic game of ‘not do as I do, but do as I say’.
Fast forward to 2002. Quiz show host Angus Deayton was revealed to have had consensual sex (shocking, isn’t it?) with a woman who claimed to have been a prostitute. He was also alleged to have used cocaine.
Yet Deayton, who subsequently lost his job presenting the satirical quiz, Have I Got News for You, had never used his position to suggest that there was a certain way in which anyone else should behave.
It’s doubtful that anyone could even have tried the ‘but he’s a role model’ justification either, since it’s difficult to imagine to whom he would have been such.
Some of the public might have been interested in stories of a grown man having consensual sex (the drug use didn’t seem to interest anyone), yet a poll by the BBC itself showed that 75% of respondents didn’t think he should be sacked.
So what was ‘The Public Interest’ there?
There wasn’t any.
Prince Harry is a 27. He’s a soldier. He’s not married.
He was on holiday. He was having fun – in private.
He didn’t do anything illegal.
Now I’m nobody’s arch-monarchist, but playing strip billiards really isn’t a story. Not a thing about it screams ‘public interest’.
So where Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World tried to justify its exposé of Max Mosely’s consensual spanking sessions by pretending there was a Nazi theme – sins of the fathers ‘n’ all, apparently, for the Bible-publishing publisher – now Murdoch’s Sun is claiming that publishing the pictures of Harry is a blow for press freedom.
Such a pity the Sun couldn’t have found an actual story to make a stand over, rather than something that required pretty much no journalism at all, since it was already splashed over the internet.
In other words, it wasn’t even news.
The ‘story’ became the Sun’s publication of the pictures.
While there are clearly issues with internet publication of all manner of gossip and salacious tittle-tattle, that does not justify publication.
It’s not merely a sad state of affairs, but a tawdry one, and something that is deeply detrimental to good journalism and a decent level of public discourse, when publishers and editors keep journalists trawling through social media to turn some celebrity’s tweets into the next day’s splash.
And the claims that, if the rags are not allowed to print gossip and scandal, all newspapers will die, is also crass – not least because the same papers do actually tend to make big bucks.
Indeed, the biggest selling point of the Sun is its sports coverage – and football in particular. Not even the gossip.
That does raise the question of the audience, but let’s set aside playing chicken and egg on this one for today.
And in all this, there is too the question of privacy.
First, for all that some of their defenders might moan about celebrities being protected, the tabloids (and various gossip magazines) have never restricted their coverage to the famous.
But even if they did, why would being famous mean that you are expected to give up a private life that is – well, private?
Is it the money? If so, how much do you have to earn before you can expect some intrusion? How much can you be in public life before it become ‘news’ to publish details of your sexual proclivities just for the sake of it?
Well, as noted, that’s irrelevant, given the appearance of Jo and Joanna Public within the pages of tabloids and magazines too.
The publication of the Harry pictures in the Sun could not, some say, have occurred without the okay of Murdoch himself.
Presumably, this is his idea of a statement of ‘I’m bigger than you’ as Leveson continues.
That Hunt should refuse to even support the established principle of the need for a legitimate (or even pretend) public interest justification is hardly a shock.
Hunt has consistently shown that he’s yet another of Murdoch’s stream of political bum boys, ready to do anything for the god-almighty Digger.
But that he does this now, after everything that has come spewing out about his behaviour in connection with the proposed BSkyB deal, really does suggest that he has absolutely no shame. But then again, he’d have resigned long ago if he had.
Murdoch the holy knight (a gift from Pope John Paul II, which presumably had nothing to do with his being divorced and remarried) may have been tottering in the last 18 months and, on the basis of his Leveson appearance, have lost his memory (with Ernest Saunders-like convenience), but this has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of the press.
This is all about trying to embarrass the Establishment that he claims to dislike, but which he has yearned to be part of for years.
And it is all about trying to show, again, that he is still in charge.
Harry, like so many others for the Murdoch press and the tabloids in general, is just mere collateral damage.
And it indicates, yet again, that for all the claims of some editors and publishers, they cannot be trusted to self regulate.
One wonders what Lord Leveson is making of it all.