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The Sun's Battle to Reclaim the Public Interest for Tabloids

Posted: 24/08/2012 12:17

In their Braveheart tinged defence of their decision to publish naked pictures taken of Prince Harry in a Vegas hotel room, the Sun, and their parent company, are once again trying to reshape the public’s idea of what the public interest means - and sell a lot of papers while they’re at it.

Their argument is that there is a “clear public interest” in publishing the photographs “in order for the debate around them to be fully informed.”

A few things.

First of all, if you have to spend 700 words and change explaining why a story is in the public interest, the public interest is not “clear.”

From the off, and in bold type the Sun want to be clear that they are NOT making a moral judgement about Harry. He’s a lad, he’s on holiday, we’re the Sun, we’re cool with it.

No, the Sun’s mission here is to maintain the high quality of debate that we’ve come to expect in our nation’s pubs and at her water coolers. A commendible sentiment for sure. Informing public debate is an important role of the press, especially in the modern multidirectional media landscape. Still, the must be asked, is it really anybody’s business, and is it impossible to discuss the issues surrounding the Harry’s adventures in Vegas if we haven’t seen the full length, rather grisly money shot?

Beyond the Daily Mail trademark puritan outrage as public interest defence - and with the exception of a vague line about royal security and the prince maybe getting fired from the army (of which there is about as much chance of him getting fired from the Royal Family) - the Sun has neglected to mention the only genuine public interest in printing the snaps. The Prince’s family is, of course, partly funded by the civil list. His official functions are bankrolled by the Duchy of Cornwall, and therefore in large part by government departments and grants-in-aid.

While it’s unlikely the taxpayer directly funded the Prince’s Nevadan hijinks, it doesn’t look good, and makes for an much easier headline. Of course the problem with The Sun using this less tenuous justification is that it might lead to a public debate about the funding of the Royal Family. Since the Royal Family makes the Sun an awful lot of money, one can hardly imagine that being a debate they’d want to encourage, or about which they’d want the public particularly well informed.

On the face of it, then, the publishing of the photos seems like a rather hamfisted PR stunt. By the time the photos hit the front page, they were three days old and all over the internet. You’d have to have a pretty loose definition of the word to consider them news, so through a combination of a barnstorming editorial and an oddly stilted piece to camera from the Sun’s managing editor, the story has become the story. The rolling news channels trailled this morning’s paper all through Thursday evening, giving hours and hours of free advertising on public airwaves to what amounts to a jumped up National Enquirer front page.

And what they’re talking about is a “big two fingers to Lord Leveson.” the Sun’s dramatic front page demonstrates their fearless commitment to publishing the stories the rich and powerful don’t want you to read, whether they’re important or not. And with a bit of luck everyone will also forget Wednesday’s cowardly front page where they asked an intern and an employee to pose nude to reconstruct the photos.

But this is not about Leveson. While there’s undeniably been a chill on the extremes of the British tabloid press since Brian started sending out invitations, on paper the argument doesn’t stand up. There’s plenty of precedent for the application of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” rule in the PCC code to apply to hotel rooms, even if you’ve let an avaricious douchebag with a cameraphone in. The PCC code, denounced by many as inadequate and lily livered predates the Leveson Inquiry by some years.

As was the case with Sky News’s questionable claim that hacking the email of canoe death fraudsters John and Anne Darwin was in the public interest, the real aim here is to reclaim the term for the tabloid press. It’s a concept so nebulous and divisive it takes journalism schools entire modules to pound the different interpretations of it into students. While the Inquiry deliberates how it should end up being enforced, the Sun is having a good go at redefining it in its own image. Why bother changing your practices to fit the rules, when you can change the rules to fit your practices?

 

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