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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage