Harassing the paparazzi

The right to take pictures of and write about public figures is far more important than the privacy of Prince William's girlfriend.

Tessa Mayes

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Kate Middleton, girlfriend to Prince William, is boring. She has the ordinary fashion sensibilities of thousands of young women; chic in that chainstore kind of way made trendy by Kate Moss. She is not noted for anything beyond failing to kickstart a clothing business, and her ability to juggle weekends out with the royal family while ensuring that our future king doesn’t get too out of control when visiting nightclubs. Zzzzzzz.

Middleton is generally considered a ‘nice’ young woman, as a former soldier and confidant of the young princes recently told me in her defence. So aside from the plainness, what’s not to like? Yet for all the sugary sweetness that Middleton exudes, she now ranks high on my special, anti-free speech list: people who we are supposed to warm to, but who in fact give off a serious whiff of illiberalism.

Middleton has called in the lawyers, accusing the British tabloid the Daily Mirror of publishing a photograph she claims was obtained by harassing her. The photograph showed Middleton walking to work, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee and her car keys, next to the caption: ‘Smouldering: Kate heading for work yesterday.’ (1) Middleton’s lawyers at Harbottle & Lewis have sent a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It’s a case of no more Miss Nice Chick.

Why the new, tougher stance from lovely Kate? It’s not as if photographers have only just discovered that she’s the girlfriend of a public figure and have begun photographing her. She’s had plenty of very nice photographs taken of her at the races, walking beside the royals, at weddings.

Sending in the legal attack dogs seems particularly strange when those nasty men with cameras have actually been backing off recently. Only two months ago News International (which publishes the Sun, the News of the World, The Times (London) and The Sunday Times), as well as Hello! magazine, banned the use of paparazzi pictures of Middleton following a ‘last warning letter’ to editors from Middleton’s lawyers. That letter was inspired by the crowd of photographers that gathered outside Middleton’s flat on the morning of her twenty-fifth birthday. Yet self-censorship by the media does not appear to be enough for the Middleton camp. Now photographers, and anyone who publishes their work, will get a letter via the PCC if they cross the Middleton line of acceptability and decorum.

So, why the PCC complaint now? And why over this photograph? For one thing, the royal family and its potential new members could probably do with all the public sympathy they can get. Claiming harassment casts Middleton in the role of a victim of the press rather than as the girlfriend of a multi-millionaire who looks set to inherit considerable power by mere accident of birth. Even the Mirror felt compelled to apologise to her. Richard Wallace, the paper’s editor, said a few days ago that the paper ‘got it wrong and we sincerely regret that’, even though it’s unclear what ‘wrong’ is supposed to refer to (2).

The caption and short article around the photo in the Mirror speculated that Middleton was stressed out over William’s latest alleged shenanigans in a nightclub. Perhaps Middleton’s lawyers leapt on this photo as an ideal opportunity to gag the press not because of what it showed – Middleton in the street, as per usual – but because of what it insinuated: that William misbehaved and Middleton was unhappy about it. Here, there could possibly be some crossover into censorship, in trying to clamp down on content through a complaint of harassment over a photograph.

You may not be interested in photographs of a boring royal girlfriend going about town, but this doesn’t mean that photographers should be stopped from being able to hang around in public places. It’s not illegal for members of the public to be, err, out in public. Pavements aren’t just for Prince William’s girlfriend.

Labelling groups of photographers as a ‘scrum’ carries with it a negative connotation, that photographers are crowds of ‘scum’, intent on low-level activities; that they are even possibly dangerous. It is worth pointing out that all photographers are doing is taking snaps of people in the street. If they do anything more – such as pushing somebody violently – the various laws relating to assault will apply. To date, no such charge has been made against any photographer by a royal. If anything, photographers are often shown defending themselves from an attack by a public figure trying to snatch their camera or push them over in a drunken or angry fit.

The Protection from Harassment Act is so vaguely worded that now anybody who feels harassed by somebody can cry foul. Sadly, the PCC also adopts this vaguely worded concept of harassment. Clause 4 (Harassment) of the PCC’s Code of Practice says, ‘Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them.’ (3) We may think repeated photographs of Middleton are of little public interest, but she shouldn’t be the one who decides the scope of public taste. This is an issue for cultural debate, not restrictions by the PCC.

And it shouldn’t be for Middleton or her lawyers to decide the fitting punishment for something that isn’t a crime. After being told of the Mirror’s apology, a PCC spokesman said: ‘As far as the PCC is concerned, we’re still in the process of investigating the complaint. It’s for the complainant to see how she feels about this response.’ (4) So much for the PCC’s defence of photojournalism.

The use of the concept of ‘harassment’ to try to censure photography is a cynical and dangerous ploy by Middleton’s lawyers to control their client’s public image and clamp down on a free press. Now the prince’s boring girlfriend has become interesting – but for all the wrong reasons.

Tessa Mayes is a regular contributor to the Spectator and author of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation: Free speech and privacy in a confessional age. Email: info@tessamayes.co.uk.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes noted the petition to prevent restrictions on hobbying photographers in public places; how Princess Caroline of Monaco used the EU to defend her privacy; and how Naomi Campbell tried to use the Human Rights Act to stop reporting of her visit to rehab. Or read more at: spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Middleton makes press complaint, BBC News, 29 March 2007

(2) Mirror apology for Kate picture, BBC News 30 March 2007

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

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