Why the tabloids are not to be trusted

Self-policing will last only until the next irresistible story comes along, argues Stephen Glover
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The Independent Online
The Early Independent. How long ago it seems! What fun it was! One idea of the founders - actually of Andreas Whittam Smith, the paper's founding editor - was to carry no articles about the Royal Family. Many monarchists and republicans alike were happy to be spared royal trivia. The birth of the Duchess of York's first child, for example, was reported in a single paragraph at the bottom of the News in Brief column on page two, and it was usual to cover royal events in that way.

Looking back, one can see that the mid-Eighties were an especially good time not to be writing about the Royal Family. Charles and Diana still appeared the perfect couple, Prince Andrew had just married Sarah Ferguson, and their life together had not yet degenerated into a bad version of Dallas. No divorces, no "Squidgygate", no Camilla Parker Bowles. The paper did not miss much.

The Independent's philosophy had been seriously challenged when Prince Charles was slightly injured in a skiing accident in Klosters in 1988. As I remember it, there was a school of thought which said the customary paragraph would suffice. More pragmatic souls argued that this was no way to cover the reported near-death of the heir to the throne. The story was printed at slightly greater length, and the die was cast. As royal marriages began to fall apart in the early Nineties, so the Independent, like its new Sunday sister, realised these convulsions could not be ignored.

I have been thinking about those times during these past days when it may seem we have reached another watershed in the way we as journalists write about the Royal Family. The tabloid press has undertaken not to publish any intrusive pictures of Prince William and Prince Harry. The Daily Express, in its new virtuous, Blairite incarnation, has gone further and said that it will first obtain the approval of their guardians before publishing any pictures of the young princes. Undoubtedly these papers have been stung, even shamed, by the bitter accusations of Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, and they fear that a lot of public opinion is also against them.

Even without these new ordinances, the tabloids and the broadsheets, too, were likely to write about the Royal Family in a different way after the Princess of Wales's death. She may have been, in her brother's phrase, "the most hunted person of the modern age", but she sometimes had a peculiarly intimate relationship with her persecutors. She was close to several tabloid journalists. She needed them, as they needed her. Now that this glamorous, wounded person is gone, it is difficult to imagine any other member of the Royal Family exciting half as much interest.

So we are probably entering a new phase. And yet I wonder how different it will really be. The provisional nature of these new agreements was expressed by Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail. After the Princess's funeral his lordship spoke of his "own sense of outrage" at her treatment at the hands of the press, and announced that his papers would not be carrying photographs taken by paparazzi. But when he was interviewed last Monday by Radio 4's World at One, Lord Rothermere conceded that "if my fellow proprietors don't agree with me, I don't know how long I can keep up that instruction". He plainly has no insurmountable principled objection to the use of intrusive pictures.

As Lord Rothermere's remark indicates, intrusion into people's privacy is a way of life for the tabloids. Three leading articles in the Daily Telegraph last week, and a public campaign by its editor, Charles Moore, have made this point vigorously. Mr Moore has argued that the Mail is no better than the so-called "downmarket" tabloids such as the Sun. He is right. Over the years the Mail has published dozens of paparazzi pictures, and carried countless stories about Diana's bottom, cleavage, sanity (or lack of it) and love life. But this has extended far wider than the Royal Family. The Mail is prepared to "doorstep" its victims, or invade their privacy. Last year it put a reporter on the Independent journalist Polly Toynbee, a widow, because she was having an affair with a married man.

The idea that public and not-so-public figures have no right to privacy is fundamental to tabloid philosophy, and has spread even to the broadsheets. (In January the Times serialised a book by Sarah Bradford which referred to the love life of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.) Even private individuals are no longer safe. If a relative is involved in a serious accident it will be impossible to escape the attentions of the tabloids, and possibly the broadsheets too, which may not apply the ruthless methods of their coarser brethren but are undoubtedly influenced by their new agenda. The News of the World no longer confines its bogus strictures to naughty vicars, who are after all public figures, but reveals the sexual antics of private individuals whose predilections are surely their own business.

It would be credulous to imagine that newspapers so deeply mired in their ways are going to transform themselves as a result of an undertaking about two young members of the Royal Family. There has been no fundamental conversion. Of course, for a time the tabloids will behave themselves. The first test will be Kitty Kelley's biography, The Royals, which will be available in America on Wednesday. Though it may never be published here for libel reasons, its main "revelations" will be immediately accessible on the Internet. On Friday, the Daily Mail, in describing the book as "muck-raking" and Ms Kelley as "the queen of spite", evinced a high-mindedness that might not have been so evident two weeks ago. For reasons of timing, the tabloids will probably give Kitty Kelley a wide berth.

But next month? Next year? Sooner or later a royal story will come along which the tabloids will find irresistible. Let's be realistic: there probably won't be a privacy law to stop it. Though Gordon Brown listened patiently to Lord Spencer's argument for such a law on Thursday, the Government is unlikely to introduce one, partly because of fears that it might offer protection to crooked public men, but mostly because Tony Blair is not going to offend his new supporter, Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun and the News of the World. A better bet is our old friend tougher self-regulation. Sir David English, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail group, may find his position as chairman of the "code committee" of the Press Complaints Commission challenged. To put Sir David in such a job is rather like having Mr Toad in charge of the Automobile Association.

This is a watershed, and it may be that in these circumstances, with the superstar Princess dead and gone, better self-regulation and a few resolutions on the part of the tabloids will lead to more muted coverage. I certainly hope so. The Independent may even be able to return to its old ways. But there are many readers who will want the old fare back on the menu and there are newspapers in our free market world whose instinct will be to oblige. Watershed it may be, but I fear that sooner or later the tabloids will break their bounds again.