A princely approach to privacy

How did the UK media end up doing a better job of defending the royal family's privacy than the royal family itself?

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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Yet again, the royal family has been complaining about having its privacy invaded by the media – but this time the media company doing the invading was owned by none other than Prince Edward.

Edward’s TV company Ardent stayed around St Andrew’s University in Fife, Scotland, until 26 September to try to capture Prince William as he started his life as an undergraduate – allegedly bribing William’s fellow freshers with curries and £10 notes in an attempt to get them to talk about him. Prince Charles was said to be ‘incandescent’ with rage.

Every other media organisation and news reporter had already been and gone. An unwritten agreement with Buckingham Palace stipulated that after the official photo call on 23 September the media would leave Fife and respect Prince William’s privacy. Most of the media dutifully left – but Ardent cameramen stayed behind.

Today, the media does a better job of defending the royal family’s privacy than members of the royal family do themselves. But does this benefit anybody?

The media laid in to Edward’s TV company for breaching the media’s agreement with the Palace. Andrew Neil, newspaper editor and rector at St Andrew’s, said: ‘Edward and his company behaved disgracefully.’ (1) The Sun described Edward’s behaviour as ‘beneath contempt’ (2), while James Whitaker of the Mirror described him as ‘an arrogant, insensitive prat’ (3).

The media has adopted a general ‘hands off’ approach to Prince William. After his mother Princess Diana’s death in 1997, the Press Complaints Commission brought in a new code of practice banning ‘persistent pursuit’ by the media to obtain pictures – extending the definition of ‘private life’ to include a person’s health, home life, family relationships and personal correspondence.

Now, despite the fact that William is over 18, walks around in full public view on the St Andrew’s campus, and is a leading member of the royal establishment, the public knows little about him compared to what was known about the young Lady Diana Spencer when she emerged into the spotlight in 1980.

But who should have control over public spaces and what gets reported about the rich and powerful? And surely the right to free expression should not be curtailed just because somebody doesn’t want to be photographed or written about? After all, if William really wanted a normal life he could always renounce his right to the throne and become an ordinary bloke.

Ardent didn’t do anything particularly outrageous. Firstly, it was lambasted for interviewing 10 students about their feelings towards William (4). This is normal media practice – Prince William, however, is demanding special privacy needs which end up gagging anybody that he comes in to contact with during his student life – an unprecedented infringement on people’s right to free expression.

The Ardent camera crew was not inside Prince William’s private home, but were attempting to film him in publicly accessible places. It seems that public figures are demanding more power to extend the definition of private space – as illustrated by BBC news presenter Anna Ford’s claim earlier this year that her right to privacy had been invaded when she was photographed on a public beach (5).

Nothing has even been broadcast – and according to the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), no action can be taken against Ardent because filming somebody is not the same as broadcasting the footage.

But this didn’t stop the Sun from demanding that the guidelines be changed to restrict filming – with the Daily Express insisting that the BSC ‘must investigate’ (6). Just because Ardent might have broken the media’s gentlemen’s agreement, we shouldn’t accept everybody’s right to report on matters of interest being restricted further.

Besides, such gentlemen’s agreements do not benefit a free press – especially journalists who might want to scrutinise the royal family without being lectured to about what’s ‘appropriate’ and what isn’t.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and the editor of Disclosure: Media Freedom and the Privacy Debate After Diana, published by the LIRE media group, 1998.

Read on:

No privacy in public?, by Tessa Mayes

Camera Shy, by Tessa Mayes

spiked-issue: Privacy

(1) ‘The Weasel of Wessex’ Sun, 28 September 2001

(2) ‘The Weasel of Wessex’ Sun, 28 September 2001

(3) ‘The prat who will never change’, Mirror, 28 September 2001

(4) ‘The Weasel of Wessex’ Sun, 28 September 2001

(5) Newsreader loses privacy bid, BBC Online, 31 July 2001

(6) Editorial, Daily Express, 28 September 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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