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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Absolutely Fashion showed what fashion week is really like: nasty, brutish and short

With fake meetings about fake covers, the documentary gave a glimpse into the abyss at the heart of the fashion world.

London Fashion Week is the sad little sister of the one in Paris, where I once attended a Valentino couture show dressed by Gap, watched what looked like live-action anorexia nervosa at Armani and got into a fight at Chanel. Did a man wearing a lion’s head on his real head look stupid? Yes, said I. No, said the fashion ­journalist, with fury.

Fashion Week had a small elegy this year – a BBC2 documentary called Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, which was fantastically misnamed. There is nothing inside Vogue, except a vague groping for novelty, which is technically an abyss. But that did not stop the programme’s director, Richard Macer, from sitting in Vogue House for nine months, watching women smell each other’s mascara. In the way of a certain type of media, he seems to have emerged more ignorant than when he began. This is the central principle of fashion: stupefy the buyer and she will pay to be reborn as something uglier.

“He doesn’t understand fashion,” said one critic, which I think meant: “He should have licked Karl Lagerfeld’s shoes while crying about belts.” To this critic, that is understanding fashion. It is a religious hierarchy. (That no one has asked Lagerfeld what he has done to his face, and why, proves this. When I met Lagerfeld in Paris, he was behind a velvet rope. I wondered if he sleeps with it.) Macer is a sexist, suggested another critic, who seemed to think that any industry that employs women in large numbers – human surrogacy farms, for instance, or Bangladeshi textile factories, or German super-brothels – is feminist. This is the stupidest definition of feminism I have yet heard and I have fashion to thank for it.

Macer was too frightened to ask questions about exploitation, pollution or the haunting spectacle of malnourished adolescents inciting self-hatred in older females in pursuit of profit, and he is not alone. I read no insights about London Fashion Week, but I do not care about clothes. He was so cowed by his access as to be undeserving of it, and Absolutely Fashion was as much about the laziness and commercial imperatives of modern journalism as it was about fashion, from which we should expect nothing.

Macer had a tiny scoop: British Vogue learned that American Vogue was running a cover of the singer Rihanna in the same calendar month. It decided to run early and people stayed up all night anxiously repaginating. He had the opportunity to ask Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the US magazine, about it, but a staffer begged him not to. So he didn’t. He segued from journalist to PR. He drank the opiate – and I understand this, because if you don’t, you won’t survive. “Come again,” Jean Paul Gaultier once told me in Paris. His meaning was: “. . . but only if you love my clothes”.

In one scene, the actor Hugh Jackman was photographed in a bathtub at Claridge’s Hotel in London. He was fully clothed and looked marginally more stupid than he does dressed as the genetically mutated wolf man Wolverine, but that is not the point. “Come and see how handsome you are, Hugh,” cooed a Vogue woman. I wouldn’t have minded Jackman preening over an image of himself in private, but this exposed a truth: some journalism is celebrity PR.

Elsewhere, Kate Moss did a shoot wearing clothes that belonged to the Rolling Stones. It was based, she said, on a well-known shoot that they once did “in exile”. She meant tax exile, which was funny.

That Vogue, which is still, at least nominally, a magazine, should devote itself to this junk is not excused by an intellectual curiosity so dulled that one executive said that New York Fashion Week had “a sort of Lego element to it”.

British Vogue is edited by Alexandra Shulman, and in the manner of print media with long-standing editors – she has been there for 24 years – it is, in essence, a cult. In this case, a passive-aggressive-ocracy. (People are always surprised to learn that magazines are tyrannies, but there it is.)

I do not know whether Shulman wanted Macer there or not, or whether she didn’t have the clout to stop it, but once he was in, she treated him with the bored derision of a woman contemplating a ball gown chewed by moths. Shulman has the face of a woman who should get out while she can. In her only revealing scene, she had to choose between two front covers. One was “artistic” because it showed Kate Moss’s knickers; the other was unthreatening because it showed only Kate Moss’s face. “My heart is never allowed to rule,” she said, and she laughed. But I think she meant it.

She lied to Macer, too, holding fake meetings about fake covers so the world would not learn that Vogue had, by its cracked standards, a huge scoop: the Duchess of Cambridge would appear on the cover of the 100th-anniversary issue in a hat.

Absolutely Fashion also taught us, had we not known, that fashion is peopled by privileged creatures who are impervious to the extent of their privilege and who are, therefore, bad journalists, because they cannot even effectively interview themselves. For instance, the photographer Mary McCartney, one of Paul’s daughters, told Macer that she had never got work because her father was a member of the Beatles.

To be oblivious to reality is essential in fashion. Everyone is equal under the skirt. Yet McCartney flourishes because of the doctrine of the age: the already prosperous are more worthy of prosperity.

Not everyone seemed so disingenuous. One woman described the search for the non-existent novelty as “exhausting”. She no longer believed in the cult.

Absolutely Fashion, if you watch it critically, is more interesting than Macer perhaps allowed himself to dream. In its way, it embodied any fashion week anywhere: nasty, brutish and short. 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times