Privacy laws shouldn’t apply to Her Majesty – or “Babykins” Middleton

Peter Wilby’s take on the week’s media news.

You have not, I hope, forgotten that the woman taking her marriage vows in Westminster Abbey is (or was) called "Babykins". A man went to jail so that we could all know that this was the nickname used by our future king for our future queen. He obtained this vital information by intercepting the voicemails of royal aides on 487 occasions. For that, the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman, said at the time to be a lone "rogue", was convicted in January 2007.

I wondered then if Goodman - who also revealed to an astonished nation that Prince William had seen a doctor about a knee injury - would have been so widely denounced if he had stumbled across evidence that the second in line to the throne was discussing with a New Labour operative how to keep Gordon Brown out of No 10, or was in regular contact with leaders of the UK Independence Party. Goodman's crime, it was said, was to be found out. His bigger crime was failing to find a decent story.

More than four years on, despite all the embarrassment heaped on Rupert Murdoch's evil empire by further revelations of phone-hacking, Goodman remains the only NoW journalist to face the courts. Yet, of all the instances of hacking, his was the most defensible. What is the point of a royal editor if he doesn't hack people's phones?

Laws for the protection of privacy should not apply to the Queen and her family. The monarchy cannot be private: it is a public institution with no significant function other than to satisfy public curiosity.

Royal Rooney

The royal family occupies its position not because of any special skills, talents or achievements - unless you count shaking hands and asking people if they've come far - but through birth and marriage. What to everybody else would be private - family, love, procreation - becomes in royalty's case public, because it determines the line of succession and the identity of our future head of state.

They would prefer us to be content with details, not all of them accurate, dribbled out by their slick and expensive public relations team. But if the entire country is required to take a day's holiday to watch you get married and pledge eternal devotion, you cannot complain if newspaper readers wish to be kept fully abreast of developments.

The same does not automatically apply to other public figures who wish to keep their private lives out of the newspapers. We may admire their footballing skill, their interviewing charm, their competence in government office, their brilliance on stage or screen, their facility in making high bank profits, or their rise from humble beginnings to an appearance on Big Brother. If they fail, we are entitled to know why and how. But we are not entitled to information about their performance in bed.

The exceptions are where they use their family to advance their career or for commercial and branding purposes: for example, a footballer such as Wayne Rooney who sells exclusive coverage of his wedding to a glossy celebrity magazine puts himself in the same category as William and Kate.
I am not, therefore, impressed by the fuss the press is kicking up about the use of injunctions to prevent the publication of titillating revelations. I am inclined to share the view that judges should prevent public identification where an element of blackmail is involved, as it often is, and that they should act to protect children. Judges should also take account of how it's often the "wronged wife" who wants the subject kept out of the media.

Newspapers believe that anyone in the public eye should be exposed for any instance of extramarital relations or, as the Daily Mail calls it, "wrongdoing". Sex in anything other than the missionary position is regarded as particularly deserving of exposure. This is not, I grant you, the same as stoning women to death for adultery, but the thinking behind it is similar.

No newspaper can be expected to do the job, but I wonder if Hugh Grant, having successfully bugged a former News of the World journalist on the New Statesman's behalf (and having been avenged by an NoW exposure of his own latest love) could turn his considerable investigative skills to digging the dirt on Fleet Street's finest.

Auntie's deference

The notion that the BBC is a hotbed of anarchists and lefties looks especially ridiculous at times like this. Its approach to the royal family is invariably hushed and deferential and, judging by its preference for Huw Edwards to anchor its coverage on the big day, it now regards even David Dimbleby as too spiky and mischievous to be let loose on the Windsors.

But, as a republican, I have to recognise that people like me are in a minority and that even those of us who would like to be rid of the monarchy aren't exactly taking our cause to the streets.

The BBC, while doing its best to remain even-handed, takes as its editorial default position respectable, informed opinion, rather than trying - as the Daily Mail and the Sun would wish - to echo some notional consensus of demotic opinion (coincidentally, the one that they believe they represent).

This inevitably makes it lean towards liberal, centrist values, which irritates the left as much as the right. It also makes the BBC lean towards treating the monarchy with respect, if not reverence, and giving great national occasions largely uncritical coverage. I do not see how a national broadcasting organisation can do anything else.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm