February 23

Surprise : newspaper says public interest excuses breaches of law

On 1 December, 2005, in a column headed “Newspaper invades Prince’s privacy” we said that for far too long, some in the media have decided that the ethical and legal constraints on publishing material about anyone, including journalists, editors and media moguls, do not apply to the Royal Family: 

We suggested that this treatment of the Royal Family might be coming to an end. The Prince of Wales had, with reluctance and under extreme provocation, instituted legal proceedings against The Mail on Sunday.

The Mail had been warned, not once but five times, that if it published, it would be a breach of the Prince’s extracts from a private journal copyright and a breach of confidentiality.

Despite this the editor went ahead and published the extracts. And not only does the Mail have a copy of this private journal, it has copies of eight others written over many years .

The journal in question, “The Handover of Hong Kong, or the Great Chinese Takeaway” related to the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to the Peoples’ Republic of China.

It was clearly private. As Sir Michael Peat, the Prince’s principal private secretary, said:

“Like everybody else, the Prince of Wales is entitled to write a private journal without extracts being published."

Caroline Davies, has reported the latest developments in the case in the London Daily Telegraph of 22 February 2006.

Mark Bolland, previously Director of the Press Complaints Commission, and then the Prince’s deputy private secretary for five years, has turned against him and is now the principal witness for the Mail.

Mr Bolland has previously revealed private matters concerning his employment in an opinion piece in the British press.

Mr.Bolland was obviously employed by the Prince because of his skill in dealing with the press. The palace would have relied on his expert advice.

Yet the reported extracts of his statement do not seem to reflect this-from this you would think he was a mere passive employee who always acted on the instructions of the Prince. We do not have evidence , it seems, of the extent to which Mr. Bolland’s alleged actions were done on the expert advice of no one other than Mr. Bolland himself.

Mr. Bolland is clearly supporting the attempt by the newspaper to move the case away from the core issues of copyright, breach of confidence and privacy , into that usual refuge of a prying press.

This is that tired old mantra that publication is in the public interest. According to the more intrusive press, anything and everything is in the public interest. It has been rightly said that merely because something is interesting to the public does not mean it is in the public interest.

It is difficult to see how the publication is in the public interest. Even if this were so, how could this be a defence to beach of copyright or of confidentiality?

In support of this spurious public interest line ,Mr. Bolland claims the Prince of Wales sees himself as a "dissident" working against prevailing political consensus, whose self-appointed "campaigning role" was "constitutionally controversial" and had not "so far as I am aware, been endorsed either by the Queen or by Parliament." He says it was "regarded with concern by politicians"..

The Mail on Sunday claims he has "gone political", and therefore his views are of public interest. Mr. Bolland told the court that the Prince told him his "very definite aim" was to "influence opinion", through meetings with ministers and other people of influence and through speeches and using the media.

"He says that in making these views heard, he is always careful to avoid issues which are politically contentious," said Mr. Bolland.

In his statement in reply on behalf of the prince, Sir Michael Peat dismissed Mr. Bolland’s claims. The Prince, he said, "avoids making public statement on matters which are the subject of disagreement between political parties".

"Speeches and articles are cleared beforehand with the relevant Government department. He does, from time to time, express views privately to Government ministers. He has followed the practice that such views can be expressed by the monarch and by privy councilors.

"The Prince of Wales has not ‘bombarded’ ministers with his views but has written to them from time to time on issues which he believes to be important."

"I am informed by him that he gave no instruction to draw the media’s attention to his failure to attend that banquet or to publish material critical of the Chinese government."

He said only 14 copies of the Hong Kong Journal were sent to 21 recipients, counting husbands and wives as one, and it was clearly a confidential and private document.

The Prince claims the case should not go to full trial as the newspaper has no defence. In its leader, The Daily Telgraph seems to accept the veracity of the direction of Mr. Bolland’s evidence, but clearly disapproves of him.

It says that if members of Royal Family have something to say they should say it, and not spin and leak. The second lesson is that paid advisers of the Royal Family should respect the confidentiality that goes with the job.

Both lessons, the editor says , can best be learnt from The Queen herself, who “has never resorted to playing games with the press or surrounded herself with unreliable servants.”

The Telegraph is clearly right on the issue of unreliable servants. The Prince trusted his employees and was entitled to their loyalty. He no doubt trusted Mr. Bolland to give him expert advice.

The journals , it seems, were leaked –probably sold –by an employee. Only 14 copies of the Hong Kong Journal were sent to 21 recipients, counting husbands and wives as one- it was clearly a confidential and private document.

But the Telegraph is premature in coming to a judgment on the role of the Prince. Mr. Bolland’s evidence has not been tested under cross examination, and the court has not accepted that what he is saying is true.And his evidence may never be tested if the Prince is successful in having the defence struck out.

The Prince is as entitled as anyone else to the protection of his rights to confidentiality and copyright.

Link to the Telegraph


Prince Charles

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