Right, then. Another week, another royal nudity scandal. If aliens were to start watching us from space, presumably with massive telephoto lenses, they might be forgiven for believing that our royal family are supposed to have clothing strapped to them at all times, lest their exultant flesh irradiate our feeble corneas with its dazzling glory. We've already had to contend with Prince Harry's crown jewels being on display, thanks to the illogical wisdom of the Sun, and now a French magazine has decided that blurry topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge are worth triumphantly smearing on their front page. There's two ways one can go with this as a blogger. I can either delve into an anthropological study of the royal body throughout history, and the ways in which it has been politically deployed, or I can have a rant about how everything's going to shit.
For once, I think I might plump with the ranting... just for a change.
There's been a lot of toing-and-froing recently with valiant defenders of 'the freedom of the press' arguing that whatever is visible on the internet should be fair game for newspaper journalism. This is an understandable argument when you're dealing with political leaks, uncovered super-injunctions, abuses of the tax system, etc etc etc. The people have a right to know, and journalists have a duty to report the most important stories. Fair enough. However, when the issue at stake is not immorally-accessed video footage of illegal drone strikes on civilians, but instead pictures of a famous person's floppy bits, then the philosophical momentum drains somewhat from the freedom of the press argument. Indeed, the word 'freedom' suggests the ability to choose - the right to abstain, as well as proceed - and in this case only a blathering idiot would actually think it morally justified to publish those errant testicles.
Well, step forward France's illustrious Closer magazine, which has boldly flung itself into the breach to fight for our civil liberties, and ensure that we see Kate Middleton's exposed breasts. Like a Gauloise-smoking, turtle-neck-wearing version of Sherlock Holmes, they quite brilliantly deduced that the Duchess of Cambridge, being a relatively typical human being, would probably not just get her tits out at the grand opening of a hospital, so instead they waited for her to assume she was in private, sharing some intimate time with her husband, before deploying the world's longest telephoto lens - the kind of thing that probably requires three tripods to support it, and a dedicated team of Himalayan sherpas to drag it around. And, boy, it's lucky they did, because how else were we going to see those perfectly ordinary mammaries? I can now sleep safe at night, knowing the Duchess is indeed a female human, and not an ostentatiously disguised penguin...
Let's be plain about this. Is this voyeurism? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Call me deranged, but I'm pretty sure it's bordering on illegality to take naked photos of someone when they're not aware of the camera, and you haven't asked for their consent in advance. When I film a TV documentary, I have to notify the (fully-clothed) public with clearly visible signs that they may be on camera, and they have a moral right to say "no, I don't want to be in your programme", in which case we have to cut them out, or pixelate their faces. Would it be moral, or even legal, to wander into a Marks and Spencers changing room and start filming random women trying on bras? I don't imagine so. What if those women are famous? Is it okay then? Well, clearly not, no. So, how is it moral to take photos of Kate Middleton from half a kilometre away, when she believes she is in private?
Now, various people in the press will say "well, it's those bloody French, isn't it? We'd never do that here in Britain." Hmmmm, I think Lord Justice Leveson may disagree. The thing is, we have a tradition of nudity in some of our more puerile newspapers. It's not something I get particularly angry about, because nudity doesn't cause civilisation to collapse in on itself in a vortex of pert boobs, despite America's infamous disgust at Janet Jackson's nipple. Every child has seen a breast at some point, probably because it sustained them in their infancy with naturally-produced milk, so let's just agree for now that consensual nudity in the Sun is not the issue here. What is the issue is the fact that British newspapers can somehow print material that was obtained in a disrespectful manner, and then claim the moral high ground for doing so.
Walking through the West End of London, as I occasionally do, I frequently come across paparazzi hunting in packs. They're job is to provide eye fodder - and it really is nothing more than that - for the sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail website, and various others. They're mission is to seek wandering nipples, momentary flashes of cotton gusset, incriminating sweaty pits, cellulite dimples, unflattering freeze-frames of beautiful women caught in between expressions, and anything else that titillates in the most boring of ways. These photographers are not bad people, they're just providing what this nation is, depressingly, ravenous for. The Ancient Romans loved watching defenceless humans being ravaged by feral animals; we prefer to gawp at imperfect bikini bodies and muffin tops. It's a sliding scale of cruelty, for sure, but let's not kid ourselves that we're not on it...
Furthermore, if models want to pose topless for Page Three, fine. If actresses are willing to do nude scenes in movies, good for them. However, these people should not then be subsequently papped on the beach, or in private, without prior consent. The argument that someone has done nudity before, so they're fair game, is intellectually barbarous. Just as with the definition of rape, there must be consent for each and every action, no matter how many times you've consented before. I have no right to demand to see Kate Moss topless if I bump into her in the street, just as I have no right to demand Gareth Bale comes down to my local pitch and whips in fizzing crosses for me to pathetically volley into the corner-flag.
As for the justifying defence that celebrities are in the public eye (and in France, Kate Middleton is merely that - a celebrity), at no point does anyone sign a waiver, upon becoming famous, to declare they happily surrender their rights as a private citizen in return for truckloads of gold and frequent dinners at The Ivy. Indeed, many people have fame, or infamy, thrust upon them involuntarily. When the status of 'celebrity' is externally defined by those who profit from doing so, that leaves the recipient at the mercy of predatory whims. Yes, the media may choose to be supportive and friendly, perhaps creating an artificially-constructed secular saint out of Cheryl Cole, but they may also choose to destroy someone, and the celebrity in question gets insufficient input into any of those decisions, no matter how hard they may try to 'play the fame game' by hiring a coterie of publicists and crisis managers.
I'm not trying to shut down the presses, here. Pippa Middleton's pal pointing a gun at a photographer? Stupid behaviour - publish 'til your heart's content. Senior Defence Minister having a torrid affair with a Russian spy? National security issue - no probs, there. But individuals behaving legally, in the expectation of privacy, with zero possibility of it damaging the public good? Leave it out, please.
As a republican, perhaps I'm odd in hoping that Kate Middleton and Prince Harry be treated with the dignity afforded to any other human being? Perhaps monarchists believe they should be treated differently, by virtue of their blue blood - that they should be protected from such scandal because they matter more than other people? I don't believe that's true. All the sane people in this world know that they're just ordinary people with posh hats and plummy accents; they're not Pharaohs, divinely appointed to cause the sun to rise each morning, or 17th Century Absolutist monarchs able to cure the ills of the afflicted with the power of miraculous touch. I don't want the Royal Family to get special treatment from the media; I want everyone in the country to get the same treatment - fair, sober, morally justifiable.
I don't care who you are; unless you have agreed to it, your dangly bits are not communal property.