The princess and the pornographer
Richard Desmond’s threat to close the Irish Daily Star is the latest blow in today’s war on press freedom.
The publication of topless photos of Kate Middleton by the Irish Daily Star has resulted in a threat to close the newspaper by one of its owners. Whatever one’s feelings about the rights and wrongs of printing such pictures, there is a principle at stake here: press freedom.
The Irish Daily Star, a joint venture between Irish-based multinational Independent News and Media (INM) and Richard Desmond’s UK Northern and Shell, publishers of the British-based Daily Star, broke ranks with the British press by publishing the topless pics on Saturday 15 September.
First published by the French edition of celebrity magazine Closer, the photos have already caused a media storm. Now, following the publication of the photos in Ireland, a newspaper – and the jobs of its 70 staff – is on the line.
Northern and Shell chairman Desmond said: ‘I am very angry at the decision to publish these photographs and am taking immediate steps to close down the joint venture. The decision to publish these pictures has no justification whatever and Northern and Shell condemns it in the strongest possible terms.’
The Irish Daily Star‘s co-owner, INM, is also attempting to put clear blue water between itself and its red-top. Chief executive Joe Webb issued an apology and said: ‘These pictures should not have been published.’
The National Union of Journalists has condemned the threat to close the Irish Daily Star, with its Irish secretary Seamus Dooley describing it as a ‘callous and crude attempt by Northern and Shell to protect their UK commercial interests with no regard for the livelihood of Irish workers’. One commentator has argued that Desmond’s real plan may simply be to save money by halting production of a specifically Irish paper and just dumping his British paper on Irish newsstands.
I don’t know what Desmond’s views are on the monarchy, but it’s fanciful to believe that a man who made his fortune publishing such august periodicals as Asian Babes and Readers’ Wives is offended by a photograph of a pair of breasts. Perhaps Desmond is an ardent royalist. But it’s more likely that in the post-News of the World, Leveson-judgement era, newspaper publishers are terrified of official censure, and so Desmond feels the need to make a public sacrifice to the gods of decency.
What happens next will certainly be interesting. Since 2007, Irish newspapers have been governed by statutory regulation in the form of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman. Although independent and industry-funded, these bodies are recognised in law, specifically created in exchange for the easing of Ireland’s harsh libel laws and in order to avoid the passing of a privacy law. This Irish model has been proposed by many as a decent replacement for the now-reviled Press Complaints Commission in the UK.
Of course, there is no real public interest in publishing the photos of Kate, but… so what? As Mick Hume writes in his new book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… and We Need One More Than Ever: ‘A free press must mean one that is free, not from being judged or subjected to the normal criminal law, but from being restrained or punished on the grounds of taste or “decency” or offended feelings or outraged sensibilities.’
As Hume says, freedom of the press is indeed a lofty principle but ‘it is one that can be used for low purposes’. Low purposes such as, say, printing prurient photographs of princesses. This should not blind us to the fact that press freedom remains an important principle. A free press is a key political institution and an essential form of freedom of expression. Despite its numerous problems, freedom of expression has been the bedrock of liberty and democracy since the era of the Enlightenment. It is this, and only this, truly liberal sentiment that should drive us to stand up for the rights of the often illiberal, usually rambunctious and sometimes downright dodgy tabloid press.
There are many of us, myself included, who despair at the debasing of public discourse, in parliament as much as in the press. But the answer to the manifold problems with the press today is not to cow newspapers into submission before the state. There is no shortage of pricks working in the press, but as has been said many times in spiked, when it comes to a free press Marx was right: ‘You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns.’
Those who feel the publication of the Kate pics represents a moral problem are not necessarily wrong. The point, however, is that the development of high-minded debate does not inexorably follow from the stamping out of the popular press. And, for the record, the Irish Daily Star was the only newspaper in Ireland that had the nerve to stand up for free speech by republishing the Muhammad cartoons from Jyllands-Posten in 2006.
It remains to be seen if Desmond really can stop the presses at the Irish Daily Star. Perhaps, assuming it is so minded, INM will buy him out, though if it does then a name change will likely be required. What is clear, however, is that the press – even those elements of it we may not approve of – is in need of a strong defence. Even in today’s era of the free-for-all of the supposedly participatory and democratic media that is the internet, a free press is as essential as ever.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site at http://jasonwalsh.ie. He is currently reading for a PhD in the philosophy of news.