Last updated: August 24, 2012 6:08 pm

Murdoch is wrong on Prince Harry pictures

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The Sun’s move to publish photos has nothing to do with press freedom
Prince Harry, smiles after playing rugby at Flamengo's beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.©AP

Rupert Murdoch is championing the right of his newspapers to publish photographs of Prince Harry's embarrassing but harmless antics

You have to hand it to Rupert Murdoch. Half-a-dozen or so former editors and reporters at his British newspaper business face criminal charges arising out of the phone-hacking scandal. News International is paying out tens of millions of pounds in civil damages to politicians, celebrities and, in one case, the family of a young murder victim after admitting tapping into their voicemail messages. Now Mr Murdoch is casting himself as the champion of press freedom.

One might have thought the News Corp chief would have been careful to choose a noble cause before mounting the white charger of unfettered expression. Perhaps a story of corruption and cover-up in Whitehall? A new expenses scandal at Westminster? Or maybe a minister fallen prey to a Russian honeytrap?

Not a bit of it. Mr Murdoch is championing the right of his newspapers to publish photographs of Prince Harry’s embarrassing but harmless antics with a bunch of friends in a Las Vegas hotel room. The fourth estate can only be truly free, it seems, if The Sun is permitted to print photographs of the prince’s naked bum. The claim is that publication is in the public interest. Hogwash. I cannot help feeling that Mr Murdoch, long a staunch republican, sees a chance to bite back against a British establishment that once fawned over him but now treats him as a pariah.

Other newspapers have resisted the commercial temptation to publish the two images of the prince and his pals playing “strip pool”, even though they are widely available on the web. Some are complaining that the press is running in fear of the conclusions of the Leveson inquiry – the judge-led investigation into press standards established in response to the seemingly criminal activities of Mr Murdoch’s News International.

In reality, the UK newspaper industry’s existing code of conduct – promising to respect the privacy of individuals unless there is a demonstrable public interest otherwise – militates against publication. The pictures of Prince Harry were snatched on a mobile phone during a private party in which 27-year-olds were doing, well, what 27-year-olds often do – drinking too much alcohol and taking off their clothes. The curiosity of Sun readers, prurient or otherwise, is not quite the same as the public interest.

The sanctimonious riposte of The Sun has been that its millions of readers could not be denied sight of images freely available on the web. The snag with that line of reasoning is that any reader with a web connection already had access. Its second line of argument, rather contradicting the first, was that the pictures were already in the public domain. This is equally specious. The logic, if you can call it that, is that newspapers should be able to publish anything already available on the web.

It should be obvious enough that societies must set their own standards rather than simply accept the lowest common denominator set by the web. Hardcore pornography and a lot worse are freely available online. Presumably, Mr Murdoch would not argue that this means they should be available to Sun readers in print.

It is tempting to see all this as a storm in teacup. Prince Harry was pretty foolish. Mr Murdoch has made his rather sour point and sold a few more newspapers. It will all be forgotten within a few days.

The problem is that Leveson has thrown up an important and legitimate argument about the boundaries of the press and, in particular, the line between privacy and free expression. There is a real risk that the exposure of phone hacking and the routine bribery of public officials will see the pendulum pushed too far in the opposite direction: that the press will be judged by the behaviour at Mr Murdoch’s newspapers.

The one thing worse than overmighty newspapers would be a media cowed by politicians and subject to strict statutory regulation. There is a danger that Leveson will go too far. So yes, the press really does need a champion determined to uphold its right to challenge, annoy and, where necessary, intrude into the darker recesses of society.

What it does not need is Mr Murdoch and pictures of a naked prince.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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