Bill Hagerty on the press: Alarm bells are ringing over royals' special privacy rights

The European Court of Human Rights sure started something when it ruled that Princess Caroline of Monaco and her family should not have been photographed skiing and playing tennis in public. To begin with, the decision was considered by media lawyers in the UK to strengthen the case for a privacy law - something the industry would welcome with the same enthusiasm it would afford the Black Death. Secondly, it supplied ammunition for those charged with shielding public figures from the public eye.

The whole of Europe, the lawyers argued, was now subject to the same restrictions on privacy invasion as exist in France, where legal barriers and editorial self-censorship have built an almost impenetrable wall around private lives. So much so that for 14 years the public knew nothing of President Mitterrand's cancer - at the time of his re-election in 1988, he'd been told his life expectancy was about one year - or the existence of his second, secret family.

The Mitterrand case was similar in the magnitude of public deception involved with the frequently recalled blanket of silence that in this country was draped over the Prince of Wales' affair with Wallis Simpson in 1936. Today, almost 70 years after the abdication crisis, it is again the Royal Family that occupies centre stage in the wake of the Caroline ruling.

I have previously in this space criticised the Clarence House press office's high-handed and petulant actions over the press attention given to Prince Harry when on holiday and his Nazi fancy dress costume. Now I hear of fears within Buckingham Palace that press intrusion might blight the young life of Lady Louise Windsor, the 15-month-old daughter of Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie.

The cause of this disquiet is a picture among those taken last year at Sandringham of the royal princes playing football. Lady Louise - wearing a hat and, it is generally agreed, looking delightful - can be seen in the shot. If her privacy has just been invaded, she doesn't seem to mind. But the royal household's press advisers believe the picture comes close to breaching clause 6 of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code of practice, which imposes conditions on the photographing of children under the age of 16, including required consent of a parent or guardian.

While prepared to tread very softly when evaluating pictures of children, editors will consider these qualms absurd. The pictures were taken on property open to the public. Moreover, there is still enormous public interest in the Royal Family and, while I sympathise with the Palace press advisers' desire to protect the youngest royal, the code is clear in qualifying unacceptable photography as being "on issues involving their own or another child's welfare".

The industry and, I suspect, the PCC are wary that in the royal-minders' recent dealings with the press, they are seeking to establish special privacy rights for their charges - restrictions beyond those that would apply to anyone else. I'm told this is strongly denied within the royal press offices and I am pleased to hear it, but the fact remains that by ringing alarm bells over such innocent images as the Lady Louise picture they are inviting such suspicion.

Why my current concern over the Caroline ruling? The "hands-off" agreement between the PCC and Clarence House that has determined personal privacy for Prince William during his time at St Andrews University comes to an end this summer. One of the most newsworthy young men in the world will then rejoin his younger brother in the public arena.

That rustling you can hear is the pages of the Caroline judgment being turned in premises not a million miles from The Mall.

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