Readers are the real reason British papers won't publish the naked Prince Harry photos

The stock of the royal family is at such a high that newspapers fear a reader backlash more than the regulators.

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Now, thanks to the miracle of modern connectivity, we can have a peep at Prince Harry’s dangly bits from the comfort of our own laptops, should we so desire.

The justification for the photos – has the Prince embarrassed his family, by playing "strip billards"? How many other soldiers get a couple of months off to watch the Olympics then swan around whale suites in Las Vegas? What is strip billiards anyway? – is a figleaf no better than the cupped hands of the Prince himself as he struggles to contain his dignity.

The simple truth is, the blurry phone photos of Harry’s shame make money because we’re curious. Nothing more, nothing less. There might be pubic interest, but no public interest. Ahem.

One man who will be able to sympathise with Harry Windsor is his old chap, the Prince of Wales. For back in 1994, it was Prince Charles who’d been snapped letting his heir down (ho ho) by a paparazzo with a long lens. Described as "hunky" and "like Michelangelo's David", the Prince came out of the affair with his reputation unsullied, and if anything, enhanced.

The grainy photos were published in German tabloid Bild first, but made it across to Britain, where a a strategically placed set of, er, crown jewels, spared Chuck’s blushes. You can still find them with a couple of clicks today, though I’d have a long think if you’re going to leave that search history on your work PC.

Those were different times, though: the royals were in a slump of popularity; long-lens photos were seen as fair game, in the wake of the "toe-sucking" shots that had embarrassed the former Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson; and, perhaps most importantly, Princess Diana was yet to be killed after fleeing photographers in Paris.

Now, it’s not the verminous paparazzi who are most likely to obtain a nudey scoop but friends and hangers-on taking surreptitious snaps using camera phones – or even the subjects themselves unwisely leaving risqué photos on their hardware, as Christina Hendricks and Scarlett Johannson have recently discovered.

In a post-hacking media landscape, how will the tabloids react to the opportunity to show off very nearly all of the nation’s favourite red-top? So far, no-one has blinked. They’ve all mentioned the pictures, but they’ve been coy about showing them, even with strategically placed billiard balls. No news website has even dared link to TMZ.

Perhaps it has something to do with the Leveson Inquiry. The statement of the Mail’s online editor Martin Clarke, for example, says that operators like the Mail are going to struggle if they are hamstrung by a regulatory framework, while other sites (such as TMZ) aren’t. There could be a sense in which our "old news" dinosaurs are worried about the ramifications of publishing, whereas new media bloggers (for example, the one who promotes himself so much that I needn’t detain you by mentioning his name) can happily go ahead, publish and be damned.

I’d say, though, that if British papers did step back from publishing pictures of Harry in the buff, it wouldn’t be fear of regulators but fear of their own readers that might prevent them from doing so. The stock of the royal family is at a high, and young royals like Harry Windsor are more popular than ever before. They are celebrities, like others, but untouchable ones.

It might seem a brave new era, this world in which you can peek at a prince’s penis, but in reality it’s not so different from the world experienced by Harry’s dad. All that has changed is the popularity of the royal family – which might explain, better than any chilling effect of Leveson, why our old media are so coy about showing you the photos that everyone’s talking about.

 

Prince Harry, sans dangly bits (sorry). Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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