I've been letting my imagination run riot this past weekend by wondering what would happen if, just for once, the British media could manage to restrain themselves from seizing gleefully upon the merest soupçon of royal nudity. Join me, won't you?
First we had Prince Harry, scantily clad at a Las Vegas party, and now the Duchess of Cambridge has been photographed trying to achieve an even tan whilst enjoying a private holiday with her husband. Magazines in France, Ireland and Italy have all published the resultant photos and the Cambridges have, perfectly understandably, decided to sue those involved in printing the pictures.
The story broke on Friday morning, the day after the Duchess had delivered a sincere and thoughtful speech at a Malaysian hospice during a nine-day tour of south-east Asia to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and most British news sources spent the entire day presenting us with every possible nugget of available information about the regrettable photos, which remain unpublished in the UK. We were treated to minute-by-minute updates about how the Duke and Duchess's collective reaction had intensified from "saddened" to "furious" during the course of the day, statements were issued by all and sundry, and carefully demure photos of the royal couple visiting mosques and rainforests appeared online by the moment, sometimes captioned with phrases such as "thunderous expression" and "bravely sipping tea". It has remained the top story well into the weekend, with experts providing copious analysis and columists referring to the "topless pictures crisis" as if this whole thing is, indeed, a crisis of some magnitude.
Which is why I've been musing upon the idea that, had the press not reported so extensively and in such enormous detail upon this story and attached such significance to it, it might have blown over quickly and quietly with a minimum of fuss. The Duke and Duchess could have launched their legal action in private and few people would have been much the wiser. Ignored, all interest in the pictures would have died down fairly quickly. Instead, the story is continuing relentlessly. And whilst I'm sure there are at least a few people who decided on Friday to take a spontaneous weekend break in Paris for the primary purpose of visiting a tabac and procuring a copy of the relevant publication, the majority of people seem to be thinking either, "What a dreadful invasion of privacy!" or "So what?" And the invasion of privacy is being prolonged with every fresh news article and every repeated reference to the situation. It is, in my opinion, entirely wrong of the media - especially the publicly-funded BBC - to indulge in such a disingenuous attempt to take the moral high ground: ensuring the story is given a high profile whilst refraining from actually displaying the photographs in question means that people's attention is captured and held. The media are well aware of this, and they are equally well aware that there is often a gaping chasm between what the public need to know and what they want to know. We'd live in a somewhat different society, wouldn't we, if the media
led the way in promoting the issues that matter over the issues that
Imagine if - instead of bringing up these relatively insignificant photographs again and again - the media concentrated harder on the plights of people like Gary McKinnon or Tamsyn Wood. Gary - who has Asperger's Syndrome - has been waiting in agony for more than a decade to learn whether or not he will face extradition following computer hacking charges. Tamsyn - about whom I only learned because she lives in the same town as some friends of mine - cares for her brain-damaged husband and four children whilst simultaneously fighting to receive the essential disability benefits to which she is entitled, and can barely afford to feed and clothe her family.
Such stories are comparatively low on the media's priority list. But is it not in the public interest that they be promoted far more strongly than tales of topless photographs? Much was made during the summer about whether or not it was "in the public interest" to publish pictures of Prince Harry cavorting sans underwear at a party. The vast majority of us probably agree that it is not in the public interest at all, and that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have in no way invited or deserved either the circulation of their holiday photographs or the ceaseless coverage of the last few days. I wonder if the families of Gary McKinnon and Tamsyn Wood, and plenty more people in similar difficult situations, are looking at the unbelievable level of media interest in the royal family - privacy-invading photos notwithstanding - and experiencing a desperate sense of disproportion. How ironic it is that those who really need the media attention are the ones who often, comparatively, receive so little of it. I am quite sure that the Duchess of Cambridge and her husband are, by contrast, longing for all the fuss to subside, especially so when the Duke thinks back to the events of 1997.
Imagine if the media had behaved unpredictably this weekend and chosen not to cover this particular story at all. Might something else have been given prominence instead? It's fascinating to speculate, isn't it?
If you want to help Tamsyn Wood and her family, visit her blog to read more about their circumstances and to donate if you can.