Royal reaction to 'boob pics' bit rich

By Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett writes that as intrusive and prying as the press may be, what did Kate really expect when she took on that role?

Prince William and Kate visit Borneo during their nine-day tour of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Photo / AP
Prince William and Kate visit Borneo during their nine-day tour of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Photo / AP

Within hours of the news on the Duchess of Cambridge, anyone wishing to express their disgust for French photographers was already facing a severe adjective shortage, not least because the royals were using them up at such a rate.

Having started the day understandably pissed off after the publication of photographs showing Kate topless, the royal reaction swiftly progressed, as reported by the BBC's Peter Hunt in the manner of a grief counsellor illustrating the seven stages of bereavement.

At first, he said, the couple were "annoyed". Also "saddened" and "disappointed". But they were also "philosophical". Then, just when you might have expected them to enter "acceptance" followed with luck by "hope", the labile pair became "hugely saddened", then "furious, upset" over this "grotesque" event, passing through "disbelief" to become "angry" and next "incandescent" to the point of "consulting lawyers".

By Saturday legal proceedings had been launched and for William, now suffering from hurt, disgust and shock as well as extreme incandescence in the relentless Malaysian heat, there had to be real concerns about spontaneous combustion.

In case anyone missed the connection, unnamed palace sources compared the horror at Chateau d'Autet with the torments of Diana, Princess of Wales. The affront, a royal person said, had "set the clock back 15 years". It was "reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi".

Really? A few blurry pictures at Chateau Posh, destined to be denounced by Kate fans the world over and not reproduced by Britain's own, proudly sanctimonious red-tops are similar to Diana's loss of consciousness in a melee of camera flashes and shoving paparazzi? Aren't we missing, at the very least, a drunk French driver embarking on a fatal race through a tunnel and, before that, Diana's preference for Al Fayed's security outfit over British police protection?

Reflexive allusions to Diana's death when royal privacy is briefly or idiotically compromised, as with Harry in Vegas, are not just tasteless and disproportionate: they actively misrepresent a relationship with the press which was one, even the late Princess' champions acknowledge, of staggering caprice.

Assuming Kate does not, like both Princess Diana and Prince Charles, entrust her most private experiences to a professional biographer, or summon favoured journalists with details of photo opportunities, or make a Panorama programme about her marriage and infidelity, or become emotionally dependent on her long-suffering staff, she can still - even with paparazzi roaming the Luberon - expect to enjoy a personal life that more closely resembles, in privacy terms, that of her unknowable grandmother-in-law.

Of course, even if the topless pictures fail by some margin to sound the desired palace warning that any slippage by journalists will expose the Cambridges to persecution equivalent to Diana's, it does not mean the press is behaving nicely.

Last week, while the French slobbered over Kate's breasts, a genteel British media made do with studying her womb. Basically, it wanted to know, is there anything occurring in there after this long bloody wait or not? Tricky to tell through her clothes, even with many helpful close-ups of glowing - hormonally so? - skin and snaps of the abdominal area with clutch bags held suspiciously to the fore, but she's definitely been drinking a lot of water.

It is, you might think, no excuse for this icky speculation that Kate actively signed up for traditional reproductive services as she did not for topless photography in France, and that no palace functionary has complained that the obsession with her impregnation sets the clock back by 500 years. Even if she is a respected Middleton professional doggedly doing her duty, the speculation is dodgy and, were nothing to emerge, cruel.

To date, however, radio phone-ins have not gone mad with indignation, media specialists have not distanced themselves from their stomach-examiner colleagues and a Mr Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the London Evening Standard and the Independent, has not vented, along with hundreds on Twitter, about "gutter press morality".

The main objection to the photographs in Closer is that they were taken somewhere - minus their staff and protection - where the couple had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Its breach could not be justified by the public interest, which evidently excuses guessing about the couple's family planning and exhaustive coverage of the duchess' blow-dries, dresses, make-up, eyebrows, knees and body language. Although Prince William, according to the invaluable Hunt, vowed to protect his wife from unwelcome press, he presumably welcomed her future, in the absence of a conventional career plan, as a full-time clothes horse and promoter of his family business, available for continual public assessment and photography as required. It is not a job that would appeal to everyone, particularly given the unavoidable tension between stimulating public interest so as to ensure an adulatory press for watching the Olympics, and containing it so as to provide privacy for subsequent recuperation in the Luberon.

When William established, as his biographer Penny Junor has said, that he would "tolerate absolutely no intrusion into his privacy", his idea of this condition was inevitably a modified, royal version of privacy which was well established by the time Walter Bagehot identified, in 1867, the valuable concept of "a family on the throne ... It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life".

Unlike Leveson's celebrities, objecting that they never invited the public to share their lives, William and Kate have committed to precisely that transaction, performing, in exchange for their palaces and prestige, at what would normally be wholly family events. They already have the benefit of their elders' historic willingness to act out domestic playlets for the camera, from the princesses performing wartime service to the barbecues in the 1969 documentary Royal Family, to the Queen's James Bond cameo. Supposing William and Kate genuinely see themselves not as contracted national pets but as any "young couple enjoying a holiday" (the BBC) they should get out of sovereignty now and take Pippa and her legendary party pieces with them.

Though it is not, you could argue, as demeaning as life as a dependent female royal, the use of the French pictures is lubricious, prying and indefensible. It can only be hoped, recalling a key event in her William courtship, that it will be less upsetting for the confident duchess than it might be for someone who had never appeared in a fashion show wearing, effectively, underwear.

It may further help the Cambridges process the experience if they compare it with a 2009 appearance by Kate's Uncle Gary, at his Maison de Bang Bang in Ibiza, expatiating about William and his niece's breasts to undercover News of the World reporters in terms of ole ole coarseness this column is reluctant to repeat. Back then they did not proclaim themselves hugely saddened by his revelations, let alone incandescent.

- Observer

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