Queen Nazi salute footage: She has earnt her privacy

That Edward persuaded Princess Elizabeth and her mother to make Nazi salutes adds nothing to our knowledge and should have stayed unseen

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The footage of the Queen as a child in 1933 giving a Nazi salute should have stayed unseen. This newspaper would not have published it. Naturally there is huge interest in the footage, but public interest is not the same as being in the public interest, and The Sun’s attempt to defend publication fails to meet that test.

The Sun argues that the pictures are of “historical significance”, which cannot be gainsaid. But it also says that the involvement of the Queen’s uncle Edward is “the reason we believe the public has a right finally to see them”, which most certainly can. It was already well known that the future King Edward VIII was an admirer of Adolf Hitler. If the footage reminds us how lucky we were that the abdication crisis cut short his reign after 11 months, it might serve some purpose, but that is not a compelling argument for publication. That Edward persuaded Princess Elizabeth and her mother to play around making Nazi salutes adds nothing to our knowledge of the pre-war sympathies of parts of the Royal Family.

As we report today, it is not known exactly how the footage came into the public domain. The most likely route would seem to be unauthorised copying from the Royal Archive, if the footage was taken by Elizabeth’s father, then the Duke of York and later George VI. However it made its way, it should not have done so yet.

Scrutiny is one thing; prurience is quite another. The main reason people want to see the pictures is the embarrassment of a child copying an adult gesture, oblivious to its significance. That embarrassment is multiplied several times by Elizabeth’s later role as head of state. (At the time the footage was taken, it would have been assumed that the throne would pass to any child that Edward might have.)

There might be a stronger case for claiming that it is in the public interest to know that the Queen Mother took part in the clowning for the camera. She was an adult, and she is no longer alive. It would, however, have been absurd for The Sun to have published the pictures with the children, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret, three, pixellated. But it would also have been disingenuous to say the footage suggests that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was sympathetic to the Nazis. Not only was 1933 on the cusp of wider awareness of the sinister nature of Hitler’s regime, but the fooling about was plainly innocent – hard though it may be for our generation to watch it through pre-Holocaust eyes.

In any case, as The Sun went out of its way to remind its readers, the Queen Mother “defied the Nazi threat by standing shoulder to shoulder with the British people” during the Blitz. The newspaper insists that the pictures “do not reflect badly on our Queen, her late sister or mother in any way”. Quite so, but the Queen’s embarrassment is the main interest in publication.

In a way, this case is a remarkable premonition, 60 years before the internet started to become universal, of the problem of privacy in an age when all of our lives are captured on photographs and video. The principle of informed consent ought to be better understood now than at any time in our history, and, if the footage were of any other living person, most people would agree that such a person would be entitled to expect pictures of them aged seven to remain confidential.

One of the better arguments against the monarchy is that it is a form of child cruelty to bring up children in such an unnatural, minutely scrutinised environment. Given that we do have a monarchy, and that the Queen has served her country selflessly all her life, there is no need for newspapers to make things worse for her. No need, and certainly no defence in the public interest of the invasion of the privacy of a seven-year-old child.