Privacy is not a royal privilege

The queen has no right to stop the press from publishing paparazzi shots of her family or to create no-photo zones.

Nathalie Rothschild

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As photographers gathered outside the Tate Modern gallery in London this weekend to protest against the censorious effects of anti-terror legislation, Queen Elizabeth II dealt another blow to the freedom to snap in public spaces (1).

The professionals and amateurs protesting on Saturday focused on misuses of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2000, which has led to a surge in stop-and-searches on snappers by police. The demonstration was sparked by a recent incident where cops prevented a BBC photographer from taking pictures of St Paul’s Cathedral, the iconic London landmark. But as the queen warned newspapers on Sunday not to publish paparazzi pictures of the royal family, it became clear that it is not just draconian anti-terror legislation that is circumscribing our freedom of expression and the right to photograph and move about freely in public space.

Time and again, the royals extend their claims to special privileges to a presumed right to control editorial decisions across the British media. As the BBC reported, the queen’s lawyers have ‘reminded papers of their obligations under the industry’s own code of practice amid concern about invasions of privacy’ (2).

On the issues of privacy, harassment and intrusion, the Editors’ Code of Practice is vague and open to interpretation. For instance, it talks about individuals being ‘entitled to respect’ and it says that journalists should not ‘engage in persistent pursuit’. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the code has allowed pricey lawyers hired by public figures, including royals, to wield their power to rein in press freedom. At the same time, the vagueness of the terms also leaves editorial decisions to the discretion of editors, for whom the issue of public interest should take precedence over rich people’s privileges.

While what the royals get up to – whether they’re cutting ribbons, going shopping, betting on horses, or partying – is rarely very interesting, it is imperative that journalists uphold the principle of public interest. Whether or not there should be any limit on the scrutiny of public figures is a matter for editorial discretion and public debate. And if the royals don’t want to be in the public eye, they should simply retreat completely and give up all their privileges.

Prince Charles’s spokesman has said the royal family has a right to privacy during ‘everyday private activities’ and that what they get up to with their friends is none of the public’s business (4). The family’s lawyers have warned that, this Christmas, photographers will be monitored on public roads around the royal Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

But the queen and her offspring are trying to have it both ways. They continually use the media to their advantage – whether it’s to portray a positive image of themselves amidst family scandals, to show off their charitable work, or to meddle in political affairs on everything from town planning to policies around climate change and the health service. Yet they complain when they get bad press or when the media reveals, without first being invited to do so, what the royals do on bad hair days, how they use their wealth, who they date and what shenanigans they get up to on the London nightclub scene or on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The royals’ demands are not about preventing photographers from breaking into their private property or setting up spy cameras in their bedrooms – activities which would be illegal anyway. They expect to have the right to be left alone, full stop. Unless they themselves get to set the terms, the royals are saying, their lives should be off limits to the media.

In 2007, Prince William claimed that he and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, were being ‘aggressively’ pursued by paparazzi. Middleton’s lawyers sent letters to the Press Complaints Commission accusing the British media of obtaining photographs of her through harassment. Threats from the lawyers led News International (publishers of the Sun, the News of the World, The Times (London) and The Sunday Times), as well as Hello! magazine, to ban the use of paparazzi pictures of Middleton. While Middleton is not yet a royal herself, she was quick to learn what censorious powers come with being associated with the Windsors and having access to expensive lawyers.

The British public would not miss out on much by being deprived of pictures of William and Kate hunting, kissing or going to the races. But in their expectation to be endowed with special privileges when it comes to media scrutiny, royals are effectively privatising public space. Just consider the case of Princess Caroline of Monaco, who in 2004 won a ruling at the European Court in Strasbourg which said nobody could photograph the scandal-endowed princess without her consent in any street in any European country that recognises the European Convention on Human Rights.

Royals in Britain and elsewhere repeatedly portray themselves as victims of predatory paparazzi, insensitive journalists and sensationalist media. Supporters of the royal family have gone as far as to claim that it was paparazzi who killed Diana, their blinding flashes pursuing her to the moment of death and beyond.

The royals are expecting us to elevate their feelings above press freedom. The queen’s warning to the press this weekend signals that the royals’ discomfort with being photographed on days when they’d rather be left alone should give them the right to control public space, dictate where and when photographers can take pictures and what gets published in the press. But if they truly want to be left alone, the royals should step out of the limelight.

Yes, privacy is an important virtue. We just have to look at the media hounding of star golfer Tiger Woods over the past week to realise how the pressures of revelation and the demand for public self-flagellation have degraded privacy in recent years. The expectation on famous people to ‘tell all’ and to issue apologies for any private transgression is nothing to celebrate. But the royals’ attempts to use their power and wealth to enforce regulations that are designed to protect them and to censure the press are not really about defending the right to a private life, but about demanding special privileges.

We need fewer, not more, laws and restrictions on access to public space, on where and when we can take photographs and on what we can publish. And these issues should be matters of public debate, not of royal decree.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes said Kate Middleton should stop harassing the paparazzi. Elsewhere, she deplored the media’s deference to the royals. Tim Black said we should abolish the monarchy. Brendan O’Neill looked at the barriers to a Republic of Britain, and explained why he was sick of Royale with sleaze stories. Nathalie Rothschild joined a protest against restrictions on photography. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Photographers to gather for street photography rights, British Journal of Photography, 4 December 2009

(2) Queen issues warning over paparazzi photos, BBC News, 6 December 2009

(3) See the Editors’ Code of Practice, on the Press Complaints Commission website

(4) Queen issues warning over paparazzi photos, BBC News, 6 December 2009

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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