One can only imagine what thoughts may have passed through the Queen’s mind at breakfast this morning as she digested the front page of the Sun along with her bread and dripping. Most days she no doubt passes it across the breakfast table to her husband for page 3 while she gets her teeth into the Racing Post, but one fancies that, if for only a moment, the royal gaze fell on snaps of her grandson plastered – geddit?! – all over the front of the Current Bun. Catching a royal at it, in flagrante, in a naked – and here comes a word only ever used in red-top-land – romp, is the sort of royal flush that falls to hacks but rarely. It aligns all the bananas in the fruit machine, a feat pulled off in once-in-a-lifetime headlines like Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Naked Dwarf Porn Double Found Dead in a Badger Hole in Wales’, or the Scottish football writers’ dream, ‘Super Callie Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious’.
The Diamond Jubilee’s come and gone and so have the Olympics, so a bollock-naked Harry falls as quenching dew to the parched vine. Wills has lost his hair and got married but as far as anyone knows hasn’t got a mistress yet, and none of that’s any fun. So attention switches to his younger brother, incurably ginger, and at one time less good copy than Wills. The royal family jewels are laid bare in a ‘family newspaper’ that demurely asterisks swear-words, page 3 notwithstanding: it goes without saying that naked romps round the billiard table are just the sort of thing that Mr and Mrs Normal get up to of a bank-holiday weekend with the kids. Meanwhile the staid ex-broadsheets and the Graph bask in the fertile plain where moralism is irrigated by Schadenfreude.
Unsurprisingly, the Sun says that it’s upholding press freedom. The grain of verity in the Sun’s claim lies incarcerated within a mighty gourd of self-service, and is hardly worth the bother of retrieval. It contains a seedlet of truth in roughly the same way that there’s something in the notion, say, that Imelda Marcos liked shoes, or that King Lear is about the risks of early retirement. Bigger truths nearby lie unremarked. The Sun’s snook-cocking boast – has it decided that Leveson’s a lost cause, so they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb? – conflates the upholding of freedom with its exercise. If there’s no law against publishing photos of Harry in the buff, then the Sun can exercise its freedom to do just that. But upholding it? In the Old South, plantation-owners exercised their freedom to own slaves – and anyone else who didn’t like it (for example, the slaves) could bog off. But that doesn’t sound quite as grand as ‘upholding freedom’.
What next? The Prince of Wales in Photoshopped congress with a polo mare? Princess Anne on the can? This blogger is hardly one to shield the royals from the blastments of the public sphere. It’s not exactly what John Stuart Mill had in mind in Chapter 2 of On Liberty. There is the argument that the Sun is to liberty what cowpats are to fillet steak, an unavoidable byproduct, however unpalatable, of something there’s good reason to promote (vegetarians may substitute a different analogy). But, of course, you don’t just get the pat itself – you get its producer trying to pass it off as something wholesome. On the subject of plausible half-truths and their exposure, recall Geoffrey Robertson’s immortal observation that Rupert Murdoch is a great Australian in more or less the same sense that Attila was a great Hun.