First, a declaration of a potential conflict of interest: I have previously done freelance work for the Star and enjoyed my time in the news room, where I found the whole team to be professional, conscientious people.
Next, a question — do I have this straight? Richard Desmond, the media mogul who earlier this year told the Leveson inquiry that he wasn’t able to define ethics, has suddenly found his misplaced moral compass and is so horrified by the Star’s decision to publish pictures of a topless Kate Middleton that he immediately determined to divest himself of his interest in the paper? This, by the way, is the same demure guy who made his fortune peddling highbrow erudite fare like Asian Babes, The Very Best of Mega Boobs, and Spunk Loving Sluts and who currently owns TV channels such as Television X and Red Hot TV.
It’s also the same businessman who opted, in Jan 2011, to withdraw his Express Group of newspapers from the UK’s Press Complaints Commissions, the independent body which deals with complaints from the public about newspapers’ editorial content, because, in his own words, he “felt it was a useless organisation run by people who wanted tea and biscuits and phone hackers … by people that hated our guts”.
His paranoia stemmed from the fact that he felt his newspapers were unfairly targeted by the PCC over their coverage of the Madeleine McCann story — coverage that intimated Gerry and Kate McCann had killed their own daughter, and feigned her disappearance, and culminated in a £550,000 (€685,000) libel payout when the grieving parents ultimately sued.
As far as I know, no one in the Express Group lost their jobs over that debacle, which can probably be explained by the fact that Mr Desmond, speaking at Leveson, tried to suggest that the McCanns were happy with the grotesque slurs being written about them each day because, even if the stories were negative, they at least kept their daughter on the front page of his newspapers.
So, considering his rather questionable grasp of ethics, one can be forgiven for being a tad perplexed by the splenetic reaction of born-again-moralist Mr Desmond when the Star did what it always does — print controversial pictures of a celebrity that their readers have an interest in seeing.
One can also understand why the editorial team in the Star is this week reeling from the controversy, considering there wasn’t a squeak of complaint when it, a few weeks ago, was one of the only newspapers to print pictures of a naked Prince Harry cavorting around a hotel room in Las Vegas.
The Sun, which refrained from printing the Middleton pictures, was the only British paper to publish those infamous Prince Harry pictures, despite acknowledging that the royal family’s lawyers had warned the British press not to touch them with a barge pole.
“When 77% of the country can access the pictures online, we have a duty to those left out to allow them to take part in the national conversation,” it explained — although, strangely, this defence was not resurrected when the Kate Middleton pictures became ubiquitous on the internet.
On that occasion, according to the paper, there was some kind of sinister conspiracy to “muzzle the world’s most vibrant newspapers” by those killjoys who “stuffily declare that a story has ‘no public interest’ as though it were an unassailable fact”.
The public interest, in Prince Harry’s case, was, apparently, that his security team had been deficient in allowing a member of the royal family invite a bunch of drunken ne’er-do-wells into his hotel suite to play strip billiards.
However, the exact same tenuous point can be made in relation to the Kate Middleton pictures, which, if nothing else, demonstrate that her security detail hadn’t alerted her to the fact that the balcony she was sunbathing on was visible, albeit from a distance, from a public road.
While the Sun declared that the Harry pictures were matters of serious national importance and, “it was vital for us to run them”, the main story on the Sun’s website yesterday was headlined “Find le Rat”, with the newspaper helpfully phonetically spelling the name of the French photographer for its readers — “Valerie Suau, pronounced ‘Sewer’”.
This rather marked change in tone, in just the space of a couple of weeks, would be easier to take, from the Sun and elsewhere, if it wasn’t such a miraculous Damascene conversion to the merits of safeguarding celebrities’ privacy from the evils of unwarranted intrusion.
Does this new-fangled interest in privacy mean that pictures of the most photographed child in the world, Suri Cruise, won’t be splashed all over tabloid newspapers in future? Does it mean that semi-naked pictures of celebrities, enjoying some down time with their families on beaches, will no longer grace the pages of newspapers? Or, does it simply mean that the privacy of members of the royal family is deemed to be more important than the privacy of mere plebs who ordinarily grace the pages of tabloid newspapers? Clearly, in reality, there was no public interest in printing the pictures of Kate Middleton but, unlike the Sun’s rather self-serving justification for printing the Prince Harry snaps, the Star never claimed there was.
“The duchess would be no different to any other celeb pics we would get in, for example Rihanna or Lady Gaga. She’s not the future queen of Ireland, so the only place this is causing fury seems to be in the UK,” said Star editor Michael O’Kane, on Saturday.
PUT simply, tabloid newspapers, as well as covering news, current affairs and sport also cover stories that can best be described as celeb gossip — stories that their readers expect to find when they pick up the paper.
While these stories may not be to everybody’s taste, the only reason that editors use them is to satisfy the huge market that exists for them. The furore over the faux-controversy is also somewhat hard to comprehend when one considers that the debate, over whether to use these kinds of pictures, has been raging for decades.
Speaking on his Today FM radio show on Monday, Matt Cooper recalled a serious argument developing in the Irish Independent newsroom in the 1990s when a decision was taken to print a picture of Marlon Brando, who was in Ireland filming at the time, looking out the window of his rented home in his underwear.
So, by all means let’s have a debate about whether pictures of this nature should be used by newspapers, and examine society’s slavish obsession with celebrity, but can we dispense with the rank hypocrisy and stop pretending the Star is the only villain in this story? Let’s not allow, what Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte called “a lapse in taste”, result in a far more distasteful scenario developing — the loss of up to 120 jobs.