Part III: Battle Royal

The British Press and the Royal Family have enjoyed a rather fractious relationship over the years. While they seem to broadly respect the Queen and the heirs apparent, the rest of the Royal hangers-on seem to get a fairly rum deal. That could be about to change rather dramatically though...

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GreenHatching2On November 8th, shortly after news broke that Prince Harry was in a romantic relationship with American TV actress and celebrity lifestyle entrepreneur, Meghan Markle, Harry put out a pretty incendiary public statement blasting the press.

While he confirmed that the story was true, he also made it clear that he thought it was absolutely none of our business. Blaming “sections of the English media” he thundered at the Sun for “…the smear on the front page of a national newspaper” and lashed out across the board at “the nightly battles to keep defamatory stories out of the papers”, “the racial undertones of comment pieces” and the intrusion that Meghan’s family was suffering, with “her mother having to struggle past photographers”.

Then, ending with this carefully-phrased stinger, Harry left them to chew on this: ”Those in the press who have been driving this story can pause and reflect before any further damage is done.”

You don’t need to be an English professor to understand the subtext here, nor can you particularly blame Harry for wishing ill of the industry that was more than somewhat responsible for the early death of his mother.

But, despite what it might look like at first glance, Harry’s statement wasn’t just a bit of hot-headed ranting. There’s a very subtle powerplay going on here.

The dynamics between the ruling class, celebrities and the press is shifting under our feet. Legislation influence by Royal Charter is about six weeks from potentially changing the face of press reporting for good.

And Harry might well have just set the press up to score a massively damaging own goal.

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Royal History

The British Royal Family have a strange place in today’s culture. The Queen is our longest serving Head of State – a serious constitutional position, even in 2016 – and yet the Royals seem to exist mainly as Britain’s biggest tourist attraction. That, or a high-end soap opera for Americans.

The Queen aside though (and her immediate successors to the throne – Charles and William) you do have to wonder exactly what purpose the rest of the clan serves, if not for general public amusement?

Beyond a very small handful of other Brits (Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Adele, possibly Benedict Cumberbatch?) they are far and away our most recognisable celebrities on the global stage at the moment. What’s more, they have been at the forefront of gossip and media coverage for decades now. Crowds of thousands turn up just to see them wave. Their weddings are international television events. All we ask – in exchange for a luxurious taxpayer-funded lifestyle of travel, banquets, jewels, parties and palaces – is to be kept up to speed on what they’re up to.

There’s no doubt that that can be annoying at times. And we don’t wish to trivialise something that ended in a fatality back in 1997 but – despite what Prince Harry’s fiery rhetoric implies (or what Hacked Off will tell you, or what the Leveson Inquiry investigated) – the press have largely been running scared of the Royals in recent years.

Diana’s passing caused even the most hardened of tabloid editors to take pause. Many paparazzi were cut loose after that. Even as recently as 2007, News International (Rupert Murdoch’s media group) agreed that all their properties wouldn’t buy any pap shots of Kate Middleton.

The coverage of William and Kate has been nothing short of fawning. When those topless tit shots of Kate were published in France, they were roundly condemned in the UK. The bikini pictures of pregnant Kate on a Mustique beach were published by an Italian mag and a few Australian ones, but not in UK. And since two perfectly cherubic royal babies came on the scene Kate has been close to being beatified.

Harry’s experience has been different. Those nude shots after a Las Vegas pool party in 2012, while leaked originally by American gossip site, TMZ were later republished on the front page of the Sun (which possibly explains why he’s now quicker to anger with the British press…)

Still, even though the press have lightened up a lot on the Royal Family since 1997, it’s clear (and understandable) why Harry would harbour such animus for them. So his damning statement about the shittiness of our press didn’t seem wildly out of character. However, it turns out that that was just a bit of party talk.

For on the very same day that Harry put out that statement, newspaper editors all over the country received a letter. That letter was from the press regulatory body, IPSO, and it contained a rather stark message from his girlfriend Meghan Markle’s London lawyers.

And that was the real warning shot.

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Regulators, Mount Up

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (or IPSO, as it’s commonly known) is the regulatory body that the press set up in response to the Leveson Inquiry’s savaging of its previous incarnation, the Press Complaints Commission.

The PCC – which was pretty much run by newspapers themselves – was often accused of being completely toothless. Whenever they were asked to adjudicate on serious complaints about their conduct, unsurprisingly, they tended to find that newspapers had done nothing wrong.

Those years of phone-hacking? Nope. Paying public officials? Nothing to see there. Multiple complaints of unwarranted intrusion? Meh.

So, in the face of severe criticism, IPSO was created to replace it.

IPSO was hastily whipped together in 2012 before Parliament had a chance to enact any of the recommendations that Lord Leveson suggested, or come up with its own regime. It’s kind of based on the same principles that the PCC ran on before it (that of industry self-regulation) but in appointing Sir Alan Moses as its chair, and having some non-media types serve as members of its board, it does have at least a touch more independence than the PCC ever did.

Consequently, most of the industry signed up to it (except for the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Lebedevs’ stable, who all decided to set up their own individual complaints systems).

How is this connected to Prince Harry?

On the same day that Harry made his statement about the press, his girlfriend, Meghan Markle, had some lawyers write to IPSO on her behalf, asking them to tell their members to back off. Her lawyers also warned that, in taking an interest in her life and her fledgling relationship, the Editor’s Code was in serious danger of being breached.

They claimed that the UK media:
– “…is unfairly and wrongly creating a market for coverage and intrusive speculation about our client’s private life”
– “…should not publish material obtained as a consequence of harassment (anywhere) whether outside the jurisdiction of UK”
– “…should not under any circumstances harass our client if and on any occasion she is visiting the United Kingdom”

Reading between the lines here, it seems that not only are the English media being held accountable for any harassment that Meghan and her family suffer when they’re in the UK, they’re being held accountable for any harassment they endure anywhere.

Basically this was a warning that if any photographer or publication anywhere in the world writes anything bad about her, or attempts to photograph her, then the UK is going to be blamed – so it’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t happen.

It’s a smart, if slightly mafia-flavoured, move. You can’t go after the US media because of that pesky First Amendment, so you head to Europe (where Article 8 of the ECHR protects a person’s right to privacy) and you shake them down instead. You make the US media their problem. Rein them in, you say, or we’ll hold you responsible for it.

But there’s more to it than just that. This threat comes at a time when the British press is slap bang in the middle of a political battle.

One that could prove to be existential.

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Hard To Impress

IPSO aren’t the final word on press regulation in the UK.

The press created IPSO in an attempt to ward off the threat of stronger state regulation being brought in at the recommendation of Lord Leveson – but this plan didn’t quite work out.

What came out of the Leveson Inquiry was the idea that there should be a Royal Charter. Something which, in theory, would give politicians oversight of the press. That was set up in 2012.

The Royal Charter then created something called the Press Recognition Panel, for the express purpose of formally appointing a “recognised self-regulator”. That was set up in November 2014. In all the time since, it has largely done nothing – but that all changed last month.

After two years of laying essentially dormant, about one week before the story about Harry and Meghan broke, the PRP finally swung into action. It had made its decision about the regulator it wanted and it gave its formal approval, not to IPSO, but to another body, Impress, to be the UK’s official press regulator.

The only problem with this decision is that almost everybody has signed up to be regulated by IPSO; and virtually no-one has agreed to be regulated by Impress. Moreover, no-one wants to be.

Why?

Well, aside from the ‘state-sponsored’ regulatory element it now has, there’s something else about Impress that the media industry doesn’t trust.

While IPSO was set up by those who come from (and broadly approve of) the newspaper industry, Impress is funded by one of its sworn enemies. Max Mosley.

You might remember Max from a famous News of the World front page, which showed him at a sadomasocistic orgy.

Mosley was awarded damages by the UK courts for that particular story, but that wasn’t enough for him. He took the case further, right the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, to attempt to change the law so that newspapers would be forced to warn anyone before they run a story on their private life.

The court rejected it, saying a “pre-notification requirement would inevitably affect political reporting and serious journalism” (and Mosley hasn’t stopped fuming about it since).

That’s only part of why the industry is mistrustful of Impress, but there’s one other thing you need to know about the Royal Charter and the significance of its choice.

There is a piece of legislation known as the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Section 40 of that act was designed specifically to incentivise newspapers to join the Royal Charter’s recognised regulator. And it carries quite a sting in the tail.

What Section 40 says is that publishers who are not a member of the recognised self-regulator can win any relevant media case in court, but still have to pay the losing side’s costs as well as their own.

To make that absolutely clear: if they are not signed up to Impress, any newspaper or magazine that has a court case brought against them has to pay the costs of the people who brought the case – regardless of whether they win or lose.

Only by joining the state’s preferred regulator can you avoid this.

Now, you could argue that there’s a good reason for doing this. This sort of system means that anyone who felt they’d been treated unfairly by the press could bring a case against a publication, even if they weren’t rich enough to afford QCs – and that’s an important element of press accountability to consider.

The reality of the situation, however, is that it’s entirely open for abuse. Anyone rich and powerful with something to hide could bring whatever case they wanted against a newspaper or magazine that isn’t signed up to Impress (and, remember, practically everyone signed up to IPSO or abstained) knowing that, whichever way the case went, the publication would still have to pay costs.

It wouldn’t take long to bankrupt smaller publications by taking a few punts on this, and those big enough to withstand the financial hit would undoubtedly have to think twice about undertaking any tricky investigations. (After all, they have shareholders or benefactors to consider.)

Now that Impress has been recognised as the official PRP regulator, Section 40 is primed to come into effect. Meaning that the publications which signed up for IPSO are – for want of a better phrase – royally fucked.

Who signed up for IPSO? Over 1,500 print and 1,100 online titles. Roughly 90% of the UK’s media.

Who signed up for Impress? Somewhere between 30-40 “niche and local publications”. And, erm… that’s it.

Great news if you’re the Brixton Bugle, the Caerphilly Observer, the Port Talbot Magnet or Shropshire Live.

If you’re anyone else, not so much.

Thankfully, there’s been something of a reprieve. Section 40 should have come into effect when Impress was granted Royal Charter status – but on 1st November the government, aware that this could have major implications for freedom of the press, announced that it will be subject to a ten-week consultation period while they decide if it’s something they really want to do.

No doubt by complete coincidence, precisely one week into this ten-week period, Prince Harry (the grandson of the woman whose name and title is all over this charter) chose November 8th to lash out at the press.

November 8th is also the date on the letter from Meghan Markle’s lawyers to the IPSO members.

It was nice of Harry to give the press a full week to enjoy this probation period. For make no mistake, anyone who fucks up in the next nine weeks could be fucking it up for everyone. Meghan’s lawyers made it very clear to IPSO that they wouldn’t look kindly on anything that breached the Editor’s Code. So keeping everyone reined in right now is not just essential for IPSO’s own existence, it’s essential for that of a continued free press.
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A Blue Bloodbath

The press’s right to photograph an American actress who happens to be dating a minor British royal doesn’t necessarily look like something that any of us should get too hot under the collar about.

But let’s look at Culture Secretary Karen Bradley’s 1st November statement. “The press should tell the truth without fear or favour and hold the powerful to account.”

The Royal Family is still a powerful institution. Taxpayer funded, its members represent British commercial and political interests around the world. As role models they can have a profound influence. They should 100% be classed as part of “the powerful” that the press should hold to account.

A pushback on ability to cover the Royals – no matter how frivolous this looks – is a pushback on the ability to scrutinise, and it’s not as if the Royals are above shifty behaviour.

Recent years have seen various members of the family try and exploit their connections for money. Take Sarah Ferguson and Sophie Wessex, for example. Married to Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively, both of them were caught up in cash for access scandals.

Prince Andrew himself was discovered to have links to murky Kazakhstani money and politics. Prince Charles was accused of attempting to meddle in government business with the Black Spider letters. Or – and we’re loath to bring him up again, but – Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party at Highgrove House.

Royal privacy is a difficult thing to quantify. Prince Harry expects the press to turn up and cover his duties. The Invictus Games, which he started, owe their existence to the fact that he’s mediaworthy and can therefore secure interest in it. Dating an actress, who has a big public profile, will make him even more mediaworthy. Particularly as Meghan Markle isn’t shy about putting her own private life out there – especially when there’s a payday to be had.

At the same time as Meghan’s lawyers were making the statement that “Our client has no intention of talking to anyone about her private life”, everyone could read her long feature in Elle magazine detailing her family and private life.

Once you’ve finished that, maybe you’d like to read a brand new piece she’s just written about how fame brings responsibilty as a role model – and showing her as a UN Advocate.

As for Meghan’s claim that the UK media is “creating a market for coverage” – they should perhaps defer to her expert knowledge. She knows all about how to market coverage. With the world hanging on her every word, waiting for her to confirm that she is in fact in a relationship with a member of the British Royal Family, her first move is to send out an inspirational Gandhi quote on social media – all branded up with the logo from her professional aspirational LA lifestyle website and business, The Tig.

Though this doesn’t constitute a huge conflict of interest, this is exactly the sort of thing that a responsible press should be monitoring.

Is it enough of a reason to give the press carte blanche to harass her family, and pepper them with paparazzi? No. Does her blogging business mean that reporters need to shadow the new couple so closely that they never have a private moment alone? Of course not.

But the press also shouldn’t have to swallow this dangerous piece of wider legislation – which could have devastating consequences for freedom of reporting – just because a few bad apples get over-obsessive with the Royals.

Still, so long as the press don’t overstep the mark for the next few months, everything should be fine. The fact that there is now a Royal sword of state regulation dangling over their heads isn’t ideal, but so long as they don’t do anything stupid and deliberately try to antagonise Prince Harry and his girlfriend, then there may still be a chance that the British press manages to retain its freedom…

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Ah, well.

At least we’re looking a little safer than America…

 

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