St James's Palace commenced legal action last night against a French magazine owned by the former Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi amid widespread outrage over the publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge.
In a highly unusual step reflecting the depth of concern within the Royal Family over the severity of the intrusion, the Duke and Duchess have launched a privacy action in the French courts against Laurence Pieau, pictured below, the editor of the French edition of Closer, and its Italian-based publisher, Mondadori.
The Duke and Duchess are said to be "hugely saddened" by the pictures, and a spokesman for the couple compared the "grotesque and totally unjustifiable" invasion of privacy to the treatment of William's mother by paparazzi 15 years earlier.
"The incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, and all the more upsetting to the Duke and Duchess for being so. Their Royal Highnesses had every expectation of privacy in the remote house. It is unthinkable that anyone should take such photographs, let alone publish them," he said.
In a further statement last night, St James's Palace said: "Legal proceedings for breach of privacy have been commenced today in France by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge against the editor and publishers of Closer magazine."
The Conservative MP Michael Ellis described the publication of the pictures as "nauseating" and an "appalling breach" of the Duchess's privacy. "William and Harry lost their mother in circumstances in France where the press, at that time, were completely out of control. This will bring back painful memories," he said. "It is no more than voyeurism. The Duchess was clearly in a private place, she was not expecting to be photographed and it's a cheap act on the part of this magazine to make money. It's as simple as that."
But along with outrage over media intrusion there was also criticism of the Duchess and those who advise her on personal security after she was photographed at a chateau owned by Viscount Linley, the Queen's nephew, which was remote but overlooked. The former editor of the News of the World, Phil Hall, said that, though he found the publication of the pictures "abhorrent", the Duchess had been "naïve" and her advisers negligent in allowing the situation to arise.
"It is stupid behaviour on behalf of William and Kate and I wonder who on earth is advising them," said Hall, who now runs a public relations firm. "They're about to visit a Muslim country and the week before she goes topless sunbathing – it doesn't matter whether it's in private or not – she is in a privileged position and with that comes responsibility."
He said the paparazzi pictures had highlighted a serious security failing. "If she can be photographed, she can take a bullet. I think the whole thing is much bigger than just an inappropriate picture. When you are a future Queen of England it is naïve. Those pictures will haunt her for the next 30 or 40 years."
So far, British newspapers have resisted publishing the pictures. Last month The Sun justified printing naked pictures of Prince Harry on the grounds that they had been distributed on the internet. "Sadly the British and French media are obsessed with salacious, sensationalist intrusions of privacy and such privacy laws that exist in France do not stop publication, though they allow some castigation and fines after the event," said the Labour MP Denis MacShane, a former journalist. Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent, said the timing of such a striking example of media misbehaviour was unfortunate for the British press, which is facing the possible imposition of tougher regulation by Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into media standards. "I fear British popular newspapers may be damaged in the backlash against a deplorable invasion of privacy by one French magazine. Moral outrage makes it easier for Leveson to recommend regulation backed by statute but he would be terribly wrong."
But having published the pictures under the headline "Oh My God", Ms Pieau, left, editor of French Closer, was yesterday feigning surprise at the uproar they had provoked. "These photos are not in the least shocking," she said.
French privacy laws
France's tough privacy laws are based on Article 9 of the Civil Code, dating back to 1970.
When the News of the World violated Max Mosley's privacy by secretly filming him with prostitutes in 2008, he knew he could exact damages in the Paris courts, even though only a small number of copies of the paper had been published in France.
But the tiny damages Mosley was awarded – about £8,600 – illustrate why the laws have little effect on France's gossip-driven magazines. Paltry fines can be justified by higher sales and the more unscrupulous titles even consider them a badge of honour.
"Sometimes they put on the front cover the quantity of fines they have attracted as a way of trying to demonstrate how interesting the content inside is," said Stig Abell, a former director of the Press Complaints Commission.
Last night the publicist Max Clifford was among those advising St James's Palace to take legal action against the photographer to stop pictures being shot in the first place.