A French court was asked yesterday to impose fines which could amount to hundreds of thousands of euros on the French edition of Closer magazine if it republishes, or distributes electronically, the topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge. The princess was described as a “young woman, and not an object” by a French lawyer representing the royal couple, who further accused the magazine of “violating [her] bodily intimacy”.
Although this is indeed true, it’s not the fact she’s our royal that we should feel outraged about, but the ever-increasing problem that privacy can be breached liberally, and often in the name of ‘ public interest’. Many seem to legitimise publication because they are of people who are already in the public eye, but the definition of public interest is blurring.
Fair enough, don’t do illegal things in public if you don’t want to be papped – like take drugs or accept a bribe. But where’s the line drawn? We’re inundated with reality shows which show people’s traumas. You can see someone eat kangaroo testicles, get punched in the face, go into rehab, have their faeces inspected - and fine, if you’re being paid to appear on the show and you knew what was coming. But why should photographers own the right to embarrassing pictures if they haven’t got the consent of those photographed?
In the case of Kate, there is of, course, a general feeling of outrage that our beautiful princess has been violated. But take away the fame and nobility and she’s just a girl who was photographed sunbathing privately without a top on. It’s perverse. My neighbour used to sunbathe topless, too. Would that make it OK for me and my family to get together to watch her from an upstairs window with a pair of shared binoculars we passed around? Somehow, the addition of a professional camera transforms a peeping Tom into a fearless photo-journalist.
We excuse publication of images in the name of our collective interest, and there is rarely comeuppance for those infringing privacy rights because we simply don’t have the laws to deter people from sharing personal images or videos of others, apart from suing – after the damage has already been done, and the economic gain often far outweighs the breach. In this case, the magazine could be fined up to £36,000, which, compared to the massive increase in sales and exposure they've received, is insignificant.
Some paparazzi are plainly unapologetic parasites. They follow celebrities while they are trying to carry out normal activities with their family (of course some celebs enjoy the attention and even leak their whereabouts to get “spotted”, but not all), and they chase people in their cars – whether children are involved or not.
Of course it’s a matter of supply meeting demand. There seems to be an insatiable desire for celebrity images, and the more humiliating the better. But morally, because demand is there, does that validate the supply?
I think a re-evaluation into the realms of what we find acceptable is needed when it comes to prying unabated, before it’s a case of vultures feeding on other people’s shame.
There should be no justification for selling images of someone else’s intimate moments without permission. If they’re caught doing something naughty which compromises their job (for example, as a politician) or contravenes arguments they make/or beliefs they purport to hold, then fine. But sticking a lens up a woman's skirt as she enters a cab, dragging someone’s private sex life through court and publicly reporting the case, or watching a singer perform oral sex takes if too far.
There seems to be a common attitude that anyone else has a right to photograph a stranger and share it with the world. The Duchess of Cambridge was indeed sunbathing topless – but privately. And the European law states that it is usually unlawful to publish pictures taken in situations where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy. On a personal level, however comfortable you feel when you think it’s just you and a partner or a friend, it doesn’t equate to wanting the world to see the same view.
With the phone-hacking scandal, we’ve seen how responsibility was relinquished in the quest for a good story, but that lack of accountability can’t remain.
If you have a wide-open window while on the loo, is it your own fault if someone pops a camera in and takes a few pics? If a towel falls down while you’re getting changed at the gym, are you fair game to be snapped? Extreme examples perhaps, but if you can’t stop photographers taking illicit images, then we should at least be properly prohibiting publications from distributing them, with fair legal repercussions if they do.