Stephen Glover on the Press

This royal gag keeps nothing secret, it just makes the press look foolish
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The Independent Online

Readers of The Independent are supposed to be averse to Royal stories, but I am afraid you will have to hold your noses. For the hare set running by the Sunday Times eight days ago goes further than mere tittle-tattle.

The Sunday Times discovered that a member of the Royal Family was allegedly the victim of a blackmail plot involving sex and drugs. According to the paper, two men had demanded £50,000 not to publicise a video which showed the member of the royal family having sex. Subsequent newspaper accounts suggested the video featured a royal aide boasting of having sex with this royal personage, as well as taking cocaine from an envelope which bore the personage's name.

Well! Who might this individual be? I know his/her name, and so does almost every journalist in Fleet Street, but if I were to mention it the editor of this newspaper might be hauled off to the Tower, and God knows what would happen to me. A judge has issued a gagging order preventing the media from revealing the person's gender, marital status and whether or not he or she has children.

And yet the individual has been named in several foreign newspapers. There are sad folk in Internet chat rooms who do little else than talk about it. If you Google the name of the royal personage in conjunction with the word 'blackmail' you will, at the time of writing, get nearly 800 references. The judge's writ extends to the traditional media but has little effect on the Internet, from which many of us get our information.

Imagine a world in which the Internet did not exist. Would there be a case for such a gagging order? Blackmail victims are often granted anonymity so as not to encourage the blackmailing fraternity. It is not clear that this – whoops! I nearly mentioned a name – personage's identity was protected because of his or her royal status, though the court hearing on September 13 was, unusually, held in camera.

We could argue the toss either way as to whether, in a world of traditional media, it would be right to withhold this person's name. The point, surely, is that we do not live in such a world, and there is something Alice-in-Wonderlandish about a judge issuing an order which is ignored by one form of media. You do not have to have the faintest clue as to this person's identity to discover it in seconds on the Internet.

In short, technology has outstripped the law. It did not matter that in 1937 American newspapers linked Wallis Simpson to Edward VIII because they were not freely available in Britain. Now the Australia Herald Sun can identify this personage and we find out immediately without having to pay a penny. It is amazing, if one considers the matter, that the supposedly feral British tabloids dociley accept the gagging order while the wild dogs of the Internet roam free.

My guess is that the name will come out in the mainstream media before long. The royal personage may simply identify himself or herself, while dismissing the allegations as a load of bunkum. In point of honour, it might have been best to do so earlier. For as things stand almost every member of the Royal Family falls under suspicion to those who have not used the Internet, rather as the members of a house party at the end of an Agatha Christie novel are all potential culprits. This person would at least be doing his or her family a favour if she – or he – stepped forward now.

Why drive out a successful and talented editor?

Last week, I suggested that personal jealousies played their part in the defenestration of Roger Alton, the editor of The Observer. Someone close to the action had suggested to me that Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, had engaged in a "land grab". Now, having read a letter which Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, sent to this newspaper, I realise how silly and naïve I must have been.

Carolyn confirms that, when it comes to defending themselves, newspaper managements are no different than governments or multi-nationals. According to her, it is "childish" to imagine that jealousy had anything to do with Mr Alton's resignation. In a memorable phrase, she asserts that "the new arrangements will secure [The Observer's] digital future on a shared platform, with access to a larger journalistic resource through more efficient news-gathering".

One imagines how Carolyn might have defended Attila the Hun. "Contrary to childish reports of mass murder, rape and pillage, Attila has at all times striven to establish secure communities that are able to live in harmony with one another. Attila has personally taken charge of the ethics committee and is working tirelessly to achieve new guidelines covering the peaceful assimilation of Visigoths and Vandals."

I don't suggest that the partial incorporation of The Observer by The Guardian was solely, or even principally, motivated by jealousy. Carolyn presumably believes in the plan for a "shared platform" between the two newspapers and online operations. But I suspect it would have been possible to achieve most of these reforms while hanging on to Mr Alton. Or, to put it another way, what kind of newspaper group drives out a talented editor at the height of his powers?

Carolyn takes me to task for "misrepresenting" the sales figures of The Guardian and The Observer, and here she has half a point. I was pretty spot-on in suggesting that The Guardian has lost 5,000 or 10,000 copies a day since adopting the Berliner format. In September 2004 – a full year before it changed shape – The Guardian had a "headline" ABC circulation figure of 376,314. Last month, the equivalent figure was 367,546. I was over generous in suggesting that The Observer had put on nearly 100,000 copies. In September 2005, five months before it switched format, the paper averaged 438,365. Last month, the figure was 472,252. Surely even Carolyn can agree that The Guardian has not advanced since going Berliner, while The Observer's sales have risen sharply. This, as I suggested, may have inflamed jealousies.

By the way, wasn't it interesting that Carolyn should have written this letter rather than Alan Rusbridger, though he may have been holding her pen? I am still looking forward to reading his encomium of Roger Alton.