January 17

Crime, journalism and …punishment

A tabloid journalist accused of hacking into the voicemail system in Prince Charles’ office has pleaded guilty, and apologised to the Prince and his sons. There is an account of this in the International Herald Tribune  of 29 November, 2006 (“Reporter pleads guilty to hacking into Prince Charles’ voice mail.”)  And as we noted in this column on 8 January, 2006 (“Prince’s right to privacy unanswerable…overwhelming’; judges warn recalitrant newspaper”) England’s highest court, next to the House of Lords, has found that the newspaper, the  Mail on Sunday had breached Prince’s right to privacy in publishing his private journal.These cases constitute a warning to certain journalists and editors that  further incursions into the private lives of members of the Royal Family, and of Prince William’s friend, Kate Middleton, will not be tolerated.  The old adage, give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, applies just as much to law breaking journalists as to any delinquent.  The Royal Family is entitled to the same privacy as any other figure in the public eye.

And it seems that at last, in the knowledge that they are not beyond the law, the press is beginning to accept this.  One major media organization, News Limited, has indicated it will not publish “paparazzi” photographs: The Guardian, 10 January, 2006. 

The case concerning journalists breaching the criminal law led to the arrest of one Clive Goodman, who is described as the “royal editor” of the UK’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, the  News of the World.  Goodman pleaded guilty and is free on bail pending sentencing.  His lawyer said: "He wishes through me to take the first opportunity to apologise publicly to those affected by his actions. He accepts they were a gross invasion of privacy and Mr. Goodman accepts that this characterization is correct. He therefore apologises unreservedly to the three members of the royal household staff concerned and their principals, Prince William, Prince Harry and the Prince of Wales."  Another employee of the newspaper, Glenn Mulcaire, also pleaded guilty to the same charge as well as to five other charges of unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages. The court was told that he had also intercepted the voicemails of the model Elle Macpherson, and other well known people.  Suspicions that something was amiss arose when details of a private meeting Tom Bradby, political editor for ITN television news, was to have with Prince William., were published in the News of the World.  Realizing someone might have listened to their phone messages, Prince William’s chief of staff contacted police.  The subsequent police investigation led to the two arrests.


On 13 August 2006, we reported (“Republican media score own goal”) on an apparent attempt by elements in the press  to extract revenge for Goodman’s arrest.  The Sun, a sister newspaper of the News of the World, published  three year old photographs of Prince Harry and Prince William, as if they were recently taken .  The  photographs untruthfully suggested that Prince Harry had compromised his relationship with his current girlfriend.  Although the story was almost immediately picked up around the world, few reports mentioned the fact that the photographs were old. Certainly not The Sun, which put one photo on page one  without any explanation whatsoever that it was old, indeed, in news terms, very old.  This embarrassing fact was conceded later by the responsible Sun reporter, Lindsay Hayward.  When she was asked to explain the newspaper’ failure to indicate the photographs were old, she said the paper was running "a feature."  The Sun initially refused to apologise, saying the photos were “authentic.”  Other media outlets which should have known better fell into the trap.  But when it comes to the Royal Family, some editors and journalists have long assumed that the law and the various codes of media ethics don’t apply.  When they republish stories and photographs, which they buy, they don’t bother to check facts and they abandon their usual scepticism.  As we said then, a cadet journalist would have smelt a rat – the stench had settled all over Fleet Street.  But some members of the public realized that the photographs were old-and said so on various websites.

An Australian example of reckless media gullibility was The Age.  This newspaper is still published under a version of the Royal Coat of Arms, but in recent times has become obsessively republican.  “Dirty Harry caught on film”, its tabloid style headline screamed.  The story was in the same style.  “Party boy Prince Harry has hit the headlines again, this time for being sprung engaging in a drunken grope with a girl at a London nightclub.  The pictures may leave Harry with some explaining to do, as his girlfriend Chelsy Davy was abroad at the time.”  When it became obvious that it had been taken in, The Age never satisfactorily explained or apologized for its gross error.  Nor did the other outlets media who fell into The Sun’s carefully designed  trap.

The Ottawa Citizen of 14 August 2006 reported that the editor of  The Royalist, an excellent   monarchist website , had not fallen for The Sun’s trap.  If the publication of the photographs was an act of revenge for the arrests of the News of The World journalists, we asked in this column whether this would constitute contempt of a criminal prosecution.  In any event, this case confirms what everyone knows – no one is above the law.  The recent cases should bring this home to delinquent journalists and editors every where.




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