What Murdoch Printing Those Photos Exposed About the Leveson Debate

26/08/2012 10:32 BST | Updated 25/10/2012 10:12 BST

It was like the scene from the film Network, where the Peter Finch character slowly and incredulously reads out the news then explodes "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this any more!"

Rupert Murdoch is not used to be pushed around, he doesn't like to be told what to do, and he hates it when he and his company are made to look a laughing stock for no good reason.

So when he became aware on Thursday morning of the farce of British newspapers - including his own beloved Sun - being too scared to print pictures of a naked British Royal which the rest of the world were already looking at and chuckling about, he went nuts.

When Mr Murdoch gets angry, a bright red blush develops on his forehead right between his eyes. He slaps the desk - slowly - with his right hand as he spells out the issue he is furious about. Then he acts. Always decisively. And so it was that morning.

He understood, of course, what had happened. When those pesky naked Prince Harry photos had appeared on America's TMZ entertainment website at 4am UK time it was indeed a news sensation but also instantly posed an obvious major issue for the media back in Britain following a year of the Leveson Inquiry.

That's the Public Inquiry set up by panicking Prime Minister David Cameron 13 months ago as the News of the World phone-hacking scandal engulfed Britain's press, police and politicians.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson was tasked to investigate the standards and behaviour of all the British press, and given huge legal powers to do so. But his inquiry quickly - and sadly - degenerated into a witchhunt of the tabloids and mid-market newspapers which now poses genuine dangers to the future of press freedom in this country.

And what has unfolded since TMZ exploded the bombshell of a naked Prince Harry tells you everything about the scale of the problem that Leveson has become, with venal politicians and self-obsessed special interest groups determined to come out on top against a once-proud now-cowed print media... and hang the long-term consequences for democracy and freedom of the press.

They want to end the self-regulation of almost 200 years and replace it with "statutory regulation"...meaning the hideous reality of politicians and lawyers gaining some kind of control over the content of our newspapers.

For many of those vested interests too, whatever the ostensible reason the Leveson Inquiry was established, a major target was also both to humble and to extract payback from Rupert Murdoch - for 30 years the most powerful media baron in Britain, and a man never shy or nervous about using his influence to get what he thinks he is right.

The British press has always been powerful, Murdoch's papers most powerful of all. Break Murdoch and Murdoch's papers, and breaking the rest follows...

For the Editors and CEOs of Britain's mid-market and tabloid newspapers, Wednesday was a nightmare. A huge story involving a British prince was playing out on the web, in the press, and on TV around the world - but dare they run it, and risk incurring Leveson Wrath? The constant fear a controversial story may trigger a political and media blitz against you has been tangible in Britain's newsrooms since Leveson, controversy has been avoided like the plague.

Royal courtiers quickly sensed this fear, and moved to fuel it by pressurising the papers with legal demands via the Press Complaints Commissions not to print the photos of Harry naked cavorting with a naked girl.

Forget nonsense suggested by the BBC and Labour hotheads like John Prescott that non-broadsheet Fleet Street got together that day and informally agreed not to print "for the greater good" apropos Leveson. Yes, senior journalists did speak to each other to try and work out what each other was up to, but in the mood of "how can we get round Leveson?" not some principled stand in the cause of privacy. All were offered the Harry pictures for £10,000 a set, all actively considered it. But it wasn't long before there was reluctant weary resignation that they simply dare not publish the pictures in Britain's papers, despite the fact that by Thursday morning 180m people worldwide had seen them on the web.

So what you might call Leveson Law had successfully and publicly censored the British press even before he'd actually delivered his official report... It was that fact that led to Rupert Murdoch's Network moment.

He knew that the censors were winning despite having the weakest possible hand. The Harry pictures had been discovered by foreign media, not British. There was no press subterfuge involved - someone Harry recklessly invited to his boozy party took the snaps, the Prince stripped off voluntarily in full view of everyone present.

How can there be an expectation of privacy (quoted by the Palace lawyers) when you invite 20 half-clad drunken strangers to a wild party in a £30,000 hotel suite donated for free by a hotel mogul purely because you a Third in line to the British throne?

Most of all, Rupert Murdoch knew that if the censors won on this then there was no going back. What about the corrupt MP, the crooked financier, the drug-dealing celebrity, the bent judge?

So on Thursday he made that phonecall to Tom Mockridge, the boss at News International, and gave the order to print. Sun journalists almost exploded with joy when acting editor Simon Cosyns was given the good news. Rival newspapers, when they discovered the Sun's decision, almost expired with jealousy and started coming up with lame reasons to explain why they hadn't felt able to run the pictures.

Mr Murdoch's "publish and be damned" order immediately flushed out the opposition. And very useful it was too to those who supported the decision to print.

Lawyers, politicians, pundits, anti-press groups poured onto the airways to denounce the Sun and Mr Murdoch. What was revealing was the paucity of their arguments, but also the fanaticism with which they are held.

Many went with the Privacy argument, often claiming it was "against the law" to print against Palace wishes. The fact that this is simply untrue was ignored. They claimed the prince had "a reasonable expectation of privacy in a private place" conveniently ignoring the facts above.

Others that there was no need to print the pictures to tell the story - Again, ignoring the question about why British people should not be shown pictures of the prince that the rest of the world could giggle over.

Just how intellectually threadbare the arguments of the "don't print" brigade are was palpable - never demonstrated more blatantly than by the spluttering, ranting, untruth-riddled appearance by ex-Labour bigwig Lord Prescott on BBC Newsnight on Friday night.

But the determination to do down the popular press shone through. It is almost ideological in nature and scale. It will not easily go away, and must be fought if Lord Justice Leveson is to be persuaded to see sense.

That's why Rupert Murdoch had his "I'm not going to take it any more!" moment on Thursday morning. He was right.