Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Latest E-book | Subscribe to Newsletter
You are here:

Topless royalty, murdered envoys and the great privacy debate

The Duchess of Cornwall - Kate, as everyone still calls her in the press - has been photographed sunbathing topless, and the images printed in a French magazine.

The dying US ambassador to Libya was photographed seemingly being dragged through the streets and the images were printed by the LA Times. Unrelated incidents, obviously, but both go to the debate over privacy and dignity.

In the case of Kate, some argue that she shouldn't have taken her top off in the first place, more argue that she's a celebrity so isn't entitled to privacy and the rest link it to Prince Harry's naked ass in Vegas.

Christopher Stevens

The only difference between Kate and Harry is gender, and our attitudes towards quasi-acceptable nudity. And, photos of Harry were taken by a member of the public and sold to a website; Kate's were taken by a professional and sold to a magazine. Both were in private places (property/room) with a reasonable expectation of privacy, therefore both are invasions thereof.

The fact that Kate sunbathed is not newsworthy, particularly from within a private place. Harry's pics were only marginally more newsworthy because he's third in line to the throne. It's a tiny margin and still not enough to justify running the pics in my mind.

But the photo of ambassador J Christopher Stevens is far more complicated.

The photo, used on the front page of the LA Times on Thursday can be seen here but please be warned that it is graphic.

Under the photo, the caption makes no mention of the managing editor's subsequent justification in the piece - that this isn't Stevens being killed, but being helped by Libyans trying to save him.

Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin said:

“What makes the photograph disturbing to some readers is also what makes it newsworthy. An assault on a US diplomatic mission, resulting in the death of an ambassador, is a very rare and significant event. The circumstances here made it particularly newsworthy: US military action helped Libyans topple a dictator a year ago, and Ambassador J Christopher Stevens was well-known to Libyans and admired by many.

“The image of the stricken ambassador, apparently being tended to by Libyan civilians, vividly captured this important event. Times editors, after careful consideration and discussion, selected the least grisly of the available images. Our job is to present an unvarnished picture of the news, without carelessly offending our readers. That is the balance we tried to strike with the Stevens photo.”

Firstly, while the death of the ambassador is newsworthy, that is separate from whether a photo is used of his body. You can tell a story without pictures; it's harder, but doable.

You could argue that, by showing the attempt to save Stevens, it is demonstrated that a majority of Libyans and Muslims respected the ambassador and his murder was not some national or religious rejection of life of an American.

The photo has come out days after we know the end result - the death - and so that tinges things. Had Stevens lived, then this photo would have been of his rescuers. The use of the photo might not still be fully justified, but the tone would be different.

News organisations print and run images of the dead and dying from war zones, famine, natural disasters and a host of other events. The general difference though is that we don't know their names. Someone somewhere does, but the western press and readers don't.

The problem with arguing that Stevens deserves dignity in death is that anyone and everyone does. Apply the rule universally and we'd never show the dead or dying at all. It is one of the toughest debates in journalism: we know person A died and died in a horrible way, so how much do you tell or show the public? The subject is completely different with Kate's naked torso, but the question is the same: we know celeb A did something naughty so how much do you tell or show the public?

Murder, protests and embassy raids are naked head and shoulders more newsworthy than sunbathing royalty. If the public want to see tits rather than murder victims, then that says as much about the inability and unwillingness to face the world as it does about news media choices.

What is a private moment? What is a public one? How do you define dignity? Should only the family of a dead or dying person define dignity? Is failure to acknowledge death or the actions of celebrities self-censorship? No easy questions, and no easy answers.