Interview: Jane Kerr
Jane Kerr, Daily Mirror royal reporter, on free speech and privacy.
Jane Kerr was interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.
Codes of conduct on privacy, intrusion and harassment have influenced my work quite substantially. After the death of the Princess of Wales the rules surrounding the privacy and protection of Prince William and Prince Harry during their school years was tightened.
There was obviously an official code of practice drawn up by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and we were aware of the limitations about reporting on the boys, but on a day-to-day basis what could and could not be reported was worked out through informal discussions with St James’ Palace. The princes were young and it was considered their private time, but journalists were quite severely restricted by the rules.
You would hear things about the boys on holiday. In 2001, Harry went to Spain and had previously been skiing. William was away on his gap year and before that he was in Central America. Royal reporters have known throughout what he’s been doing – hanging out in a local pub or going down to Cornwall.
But although we hear about the princes on a regular basis, generally all the time they were at school, we could not report this information. There were exceptions, though, which did end up confusing things. The Sun, for example, ran pictures of William out hunting, while newspapers were being told that the boys could not be photographed in their private time, and the News of the World exposed the boys for abseiling without proper safety equipment. Neither story, from what I recall, was the subject of a complaint. Both were deemed to be matters that could be reported because they covered subjects of legitimate public interest or raised serious safety concerns.
Yet I think that it is right that William and Harry were protected by the PCC’s Code of Practice (the same sort of protection is no longer afforded to William now that he has left Eton, although there is another agreement to allow him his privacy to study at university). To a certain extent the Palace is part of the agreement: in return for the prince’s privacy the Palace put up William and Harry (while they were at Eton) on certain occasions for press photo calls or interviews.
But where it hasn’t worked, is that there were not enough photo calls in return for the number of stories that we’ve kept quiet about. Also, the privacy rules aren’t so clear cut – it’s not so easy to see exactly where you can and can’t report things. For example, at the end of 1998, the Mirror was banned by the Palace from reporting that Harry had suffered a badly bruised arm in a rugby match at Eton and had been treated in a local hospital – the Palace said it was ‘not in the public interest’. When we published the fact that we could not report this incident and said this was an absurdity, Palace aides lodged a complaint with the PCC and we were accused of printing a series of ‘trivial and intrusive’ stories about Harry, including the fact that he was good at football and had had a skinhead haircut.
We argued that the stories were harmless, and already in the public domain – and the PCC report into the matter released in April 1999 agreed. The report said none of the stories caused Harry ‘any damage’, and none of them ‘constituted a serious breach, if any, of the Code’. Although the PCC warned all editors of the possible risk of upset caused to the Princes by too many stories about them – or of stories being over-sensationalised, St James’ Palace was also criticised for failing to honour an agreement to provide a steady flow of information. The PCC pointed out there had been just two photo opportunities at the school in over three years, and little substantive information.
Fairly recently I found out that Harry had accidentally put his foot through a glass window, and when I phoned the Palace it happily agreed that we could report the incident. It has taken some years to work out a proper agreement between the Palace and the press – and I think the Palace has sometimes been a bit overzealous in protecting the princes’ privacy, although on occasions they’re right to do so.
The system for protecting the princes hasn’t impacted on the reporting of other issues, such as royal expenditure. In fact, over the past few years Buckingham Palace has insisted on transparent handling of royal finances, and newspapers are supplied with reports on exactly where the money has been spent. The rules have perhaps meant that details like William’s first girlfriend, first kiss, and so on, haven’t been reported in the way they were with the earlier generation of Royal children – but I’m sure that such stories are worth sacrificing if it ensures the boys have a normal upbringing unhindered by intense press interest.
Perhaps the only downside, and one which would be hard to prove, is whether the level of protection given to William has made him resentful or ill-equipped to deal with the press and public life, which he’ll inevitably have to tackle as the heir to the throne. He still appears very reluctant to get involved in public duties.
It is difficult to judge news values when it comes to stories about people’s private life, especially if more people are willing to confess their own lives in the press. To a certain extent, everyone is entitled to their privacy. However, when you get celebrities receiving huge amounts of money for regular features in Hello and Ok! magazines, who then turn around and say, ‘I don’t like the fact that you photographed me walking through the park’, then personally speaking I think they become fair game really.
How should the line between private and public life be drawn for media professionals? I think the PCC has done a good job. Many newspapers have been extremely responsible in monitoring themselves well.
I’ll always check a story with the privacy code – although obviously it’s my job to get stuff in to the paper if I can. There have been many occasions at the Mirror when Piers [Piers Morgan, Mirror editor] has said he’s not going to run a particular story without personally talking to the Palace. These are stories which he feels are intrusive. So I think journalists have done an extremely good job of regulating themselves. Sometimes there are problems, but I’d hate to see the system run any differently. I’d hate to see any sort of direct government involvement.
I do cringe a little bit at kiss-and-tell stories. I don’t personally like them, although I have covered my fair share of them during my years on the Sunday Mirror. I now think that newspapers have moved on from kiss-and-tell stories to covering more serious and weighty issues. 11 September changed everything.
However, I would not object to any story, even if it is a kiss-and-tell on someone who has had an affair, if it exposes the hypocrisy of someone committed to family values – such as a church minister or MP, or reveals child abuse or physical abuse. I think a lot of the time it is undeserved for someone to do a kiss-and-tell purely because they can get money or revenge or whatever. I personally find those a bit distasteful; I don’t enjoy reading them. But I’ve not been embarrassed by any recent story to do with a person’s private life.
Jane Kerr’s first job was as a local reporter on the Whitstable Times in Kent. Following this she worked at the Folkestone Herald and then went to a Kent-based news agency called Ferrari News Agency. After spending a year travelling in Australia, she returned to work at the Sunday Mirror and four years ago joined the Mirror. She is now royal reporter at the Mirror.
Interview by Catherine Teare, researcher, LIRE media group
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