Prince Harry’s latest attack on the media involves a turn of phrase that suggests he’d make a reasonable tabloid journalist himself. He has rounded on “pirates with press cards” who mix “fact-based news” with “opinion-based gossip” and warned that the news media has become a “digital dictatorship” which is not held to account.
As ever with Harry, there is much to admire about the principled way he continually sticks his head above the parapet. You would need a heart of stone not to sympathise with the burning injustice he feels over the way his mother was treated by the press.
However, as well as a talent for alliteration, Harry can also give the impression of one who does not let the facts get in the way of a good story – a common criticism of the tabloids.
The all-powerful pirates Harry attacks are, in fact, quite heavily constrained in the UK. As the Mail on Sunday has found in its legal battle with Meghan Markle, the cost of breaching someone’s privacy without sufficient public interest can run into the millions. The paper is currently arguing in the Court of Appeal that Markle’s infamous letter to her father was always intended for publication.
And, in today’s unregulated online world, it is hard to see how the letter was ever going to stay private, given Thomas Markle’s wish for it to be made public. The news outlets that Harry despises, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail titles, face similar financial penalties for harming reputations without good reason. If editors undermine an active court case, they can be sent to prison.
The true digital dictatorship is headed by Google and Facebook, two companies that together collect around two out of every three pounds spent on digital advertising in the UK (roughly £10bn a year). The tech giants are so powerful that when a nation state tries to regulate them, as Australia did this year, they can force lawmakers to U-turn through a combination of treasure and brute force. Facebook banned Australian news organisations from its platform; Google liberally dispensed financial favour to publishers to win them over.
The pirates riding the digital high seas are the tech giants who allow misinformation to proliferate, who profit from fake news and advertising and facilitate all manner of nefarious activity without taking responsibility for what they publish.
Another digital giant that operates with impunity is Netflix (which is rumoured to have paid Harry and Meghan $100m to work for it). As a digital-only operation, it is not regulated by Ofcom. Like a digital dictator, it can traduce the reputation of a high-profile family with a big-budget docudrama regardless of their feelings. It can also compete with the likes of ITV and the BBC by focusing all its investment on entertainment, without any of the pesky public service commitments that come with a terrestrial TV licence.
Harry’s “pirates with press cards” attack has echoes of the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s “power without responsibility attack” on the 20th-century British press barons. And it belongs in the last century, before the phone-hacking scandal and the chastened press that emerged from it after the Leveson inquiry.
The defining battle of this century will be over a system of media regulation that prevents the digital pirates from extracting revenue without supporting the public-interest journalism on which an open, democratic society depends.