I remember when I was 14 a friend of mine said that he had downloaded 'backstage footage' of Britney Spears kissing Mariah Carey. "Do you think it's real?" I asked naively. "Possibly" he said, "after all they are friends." "It can't be" I said, "they would never let themselves get filmed like that." Fast forward a few years and they probably wouldn't have had a choice; privacy has joined love and dinosaurs on the short list of things that money can't buy. Long gone are the days when our public figures and celebrities could cavort, philander and misbehave with impunity, now it seems as though all of the traditional filters of good taste have fallen away and every aspect of their lives have become fair game.
The recent furore over Kate Middleton's breasts has exemplified the issue. Two weeks later and the story still refuses to go away; new outlets are publishing the photos every day and there are a whole array of claims and counter claims about who could have taken them. The French courts may have issued an order to stop the offending photos being re-published, but that wasn't until after they had been printed in newspapers and magazines across Italy, Ireland, Sweden and now Denmark. Over here the media response has been one of moral outrage, with Richard Desmond, the publisher of such politically correct titles as Asian Babes and Mega Boobs, threatening to sell his share in The Irish Daily Star out of shame. The British press may have fallen into line and shown an unusual sense of restraint and discipline, but I suspect that's primarily because of the Leveson enquiry as opposed to any real sense of concern about her privacy. Not that it really matters anyway, because the internet has ensured that anyone who wants to see the Duchess topless can do so by clicking a few buttons.
In one sense the growth of the internet has been the real privacy game changer, after all, it was only a few weeks ago that an American gossip site managed to ensure that millions of people around the world saw a naked Prince Harry covering himself up. You will also remember the somewhat absurd situation of the super injunction taken out by a footballer, who for legal reasons I shall refer to as Bryan Briggs, which was broken by millions of people at once using Twitter, Facebook and blogs, while the traditional media could only revert to saying that he was Welsh.
The rise of the social media has definitely played a role in destroying all of the old barriers, but it's not the only thing. The declining sales of newspapers have ensured that they have to go to even greater lengths to get their exclusives. One other thing to note is how the role of the celebrity has changed, no longer are they presented as leaders and people to aspire to, instead they have become objects. Some celebrities have built their careers on living up to misogynistic caricatures, however, in the case of Kate Middleton there was no such complicity. Some may say that she knew what she was signing up to when she married a prince, but there is absolutely no logical reason why topless photos should ever become an inevitable consequence of fame.
One of the people leading the calls for laws to be changed is John Travolta, but unfortunately many will not take his protestations seriously because of his own private life. However, despite his vested interests I think that he is right, but there are questions about how any meaningful reform could work in practice? One major hurdle is that in order to be effective a legislative solution would need to be a global one. Even if every British publication were to maintain a total respect for the privacy and rights of all public figures then it would do little to stop people from simply using Google to find the newspapers and websites from across the world which wouldn't.
What it comes down to is that constant conflict between what is in the public interest and what the public are interested in. On one side of the war for Kate Middleton's breasts there is Kate, William and their lawyers, on the other side are the millions of gossip-hungry people who have bought the magazines and jammed up the internet in a desperate attempt to remove the mystique and see the Duchess as nature intended. In between are the media, who want a quick buck, the Buckingham Palace press office, who just want a quiet day, and the large number of people who would rather that there wasn't such a large audience for this sort of thing.
Although this article has focused on Kate Middleton the issue goes far beyond her. There's something so unsettling and pornographic about the removal of anyone's privacy. Ultimately what photos like this serve to do is entrench the wider idea that women's bodies are commodities to be circulated with impunity. Worryingly the last few years have seen the same behaviour being replicated across the internet, with hundreds of websites being set up to fulfil the same voyeuristic fantasies. The paparazzi are as rife as they have ever been, and what this whole episode has done is set yet another precedent and yet another scandalous bar that someone somewhere will try to surpass.
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