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It's not about Harry's mental state; it's about papers breaking the law

Brian Cathcart photo
Brian CathcartLondon
It's not about Harry's mental state; it's about papers breaking the law
Right across the press there has been a desperate effort to distract us from serious allegations of wrongdoing by journalists

Predictably, and not at all accidentally, the press commentary about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex suing national newspapers has persistently missed the point.

Prince Harry, they claim, is hysterical and has lost his judgement. He will make things worse for himself, not better. And anyway, he and his wife are taxpayer-funded celebrities so the press have a right to feast on them on the public's behalf.

These are desperate, self-serving attempts to distract the public from plausible allegations of inexcusable conduct by newspapers – conduct which should shame and outrage all those making excuses for it.

To be clear, journalists can never be justified in fabricating and distorting. Nor can they ever be justified in breaching people's privacy or breaking any other laws without a compelling public interest.

Wrongs of this kind have been committed against the Sussexes on an industrial scale for years. Prince Harry’s statement says as much (in a perfectly reasonable way) and it is so obviously true that even the bravest of excuse-makers has not attempted seriously to dispute it.  

This has happened largely because until now the Sussexes have presented the equivalent of a footballing free shot on goal for unethical journalists and editors. Since members of the royal family almost never sued, papers found themselves confronted with a glamorous, interesting and globally famous couple about whom they could write whatever they liked, no matter how cruel or dishonest. There were no defenders on the pitch to stop the ball going in the net, time after time.

The only risk was that once in a while the reading public might think they had gone too far, but since these papers routinely cover up each others’ wrongdoings (see above) and so stifle public debate, that risk was tiny.

What is significant about the Sussexes’ recent lawsuits, therefore, is that they are serving notice that the age of free shots against them is over, and that from now on when they believe their legal rights have been breached they may sue. (And if they do so, the courts will hear both sides, decide whether the law has been broken and take appropriate action.) 

The couple have thus ended a strange anomaly and placed themselves on a level with all the other rich people who can afford to go to court. The chief result is likely to be that editors, before abusing them, will now think twice – no matter how much they want revenge. 

If there is any surprise in all this, in my view, it is that royalty have not been protecting their rights in this way for years.  And before you start thinking it’s not fair that only rich people enjoy these protections, consider this: the press wanted it that way.

For several years legislation has been ready for implementation that would give everyone, whether famous or obscure, prince or pauper, affordable access to justice in media cases. These were the Leveson inquiry recommendations and they were approved by all parties in Parliament in 2013.

But the national press lobbied against the change and the Theresa May government shelved it. So there can be no argument on the point: the press itself chose this world in which only the rich could count on being able to uphold their rights in libel and privacy cases, and where ordinary members of the public are usually ‘free shots’ for their unscrupulous journalists*.

And remember too just how thoroughly the papers have insulated themselves against any other form of accountability. They have no effective regulation, only the sham that is IPSO. They have no peer scrutiny – that is, their journalists never investigate  scandals at other papers. They are subject to almost no meaningful political scrutiny: our elected politicians rarely criticise the press and when they do so the criticism is usually not reported and the politician is likely to be monstered in retaliation.

Still, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Which is surely one reason why, every day, hundreds of people buy a national newspaper for the last time, and why, year after year, the UK press shows up as one of the least trusted in Europe.

*It is still sometimes possible, if you are lucky, to get a no-win-no-fee deal, though thanks to press pressure it is getting harder and harder.

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