AT TIMES, IT was like you had moved to a country called Leveson, and a county called Press Ethics, and it was all you did, every single day, all day. You sat at your desk, with several websites offering instant updates open, with a live feed from the inquiry, and wondered which film star or writer or sportsperson might be having their day in the sun. If you were a journalist, you wondered which person you once worked for was going to appear on your screen, and whether Twitter would judge that they were telling the truth, or looking fearful, or being witty, or clearly just trying to hang on to what they’d got. And, of course, how well they were ageing and was that suit Armani?
It was quite tiring, believe me.
I became obsessed with Robert Jay, the counsel to the Inquiry, and his glasses. To the point where I said to my chap, look, shall we get you some of those? They’re cool. Everyone became obsessed with a beautiful woman, swiftly dubbed “woman on the left,” a member of the legal team who was judged to have had a particularly delighted look on her face while Hugh Grant was giving his evidence. (Though I did, of course, totally agree with a really cross feminist critique that pointed out how annoying it was that a high-powered lawyer should be reduced to a caricature of a love-lorn teenager.)
Anyway, Leveson was basically what we did before we had the Olympics. Although I would be lying if I said it didn’t all get a bit samey after a while. Once the famous people and the people you knew had done their turns, you kind of drifted away. Then, once in a while, something would happen, preferably a dawn arrest, and there would be a headline, and you would turn to one another and say: “Oh! It’s still going on! Who knew?”
But, then, OK, we had the Olympics and that was all completely brilliant, and the world was totally, totally envious and we were totally, totally fantastic. But then, of course, it had to end and – AT TIME OF WRITING – the IOC hasn’t taken the obviously sensible step of just saying, look, London’s going to do it every time from now on, sorry and all that, Rio, we’ll send you a cheque for the bunting you’ve already bought. So everyone’s a little, you know, depressed. We’ll rally, naturally, in time for the Paralympics, but it’s been a bit of a BUZZKILL.
Who wouldn’t want to carry on the party if they could?
Now, my American chums, it’s time for you to take responsibility for your part in this sorry little saga. Surely you should have seen that if everyone’s favourite naughty royal personage got bested in the swimming pool by your terrifically handsome Mr Ryan Lochte then he would have no choice but to take all his clothes off and play billiards with ladies in the middle of the night? (By the way, Ryan: he’s a prince, right? The etiquette is: you let him win.) And, musing on the problem with his freestyle, he wouldn’t notice some wicked person snapping away as he leaned over to comfort a young lady, thereby exposing to anyone who cared to look what, when I was a child, was referred to as a BTM. But which, in this case, must be known as The Royal BTM.
Personally, I see how it happens. It’s bloody cold in this country, most of the time, even in high summer. I understand that, in Las Vegas, it is often quite hot, hence all these things called pool parties, which I swear to God, I had never heard of until this week. Harry, being a pale-skinned redhead, is likely to be tremendously susceptible to sunburn, and must therefore keep covered up during the daylight hours. At night: a different story. It’s moon-up, pants-down. Who can blame him? I imagine that his companion was similarly overcome by heat, and that Harry was tending to her as she swooned.
None of which would be any bother to me. Take my ambivalence (to put it mildly) to the monarchy as read; but factor in my frank admiration for anyone who knows how to party. Added to which, I am lover of tradition, and the tradition of the dissolute younger son, permanently out on the town while his poor older brother has to plough the furrow marked duty, frittering his life away because of an accident of birth, is a noble one and quite worth upholding. (Not, of course, that H is a top-notch fritterer. He does far too much proper stuff with helicopters and charity to qualify as a real slacker. And while we’re on that subject: he’s been to Afghanistan. He can take his clothes off if he wants to.)
So, Harry: as long as you stay within the bounds of decency and morality, you are quite at liberty to drink beer and challenge gold medal winners to swimming races and get your kit off in your own hotel room. But mate: I could have done without the whole thing plunging us straight back into Leveson.
You’ll be aware, of course, that (again, at time of writing), there is a man in an embassy in London who doesn’t want to come out. Aside from the tricky intersection between diplomacy and the rule of international law that the current situation prompts, any Assange-related news re-activates discussions about freedom – and the free movement – of information. In this latest round, it has also provoked an intense national conversation – I believe you’ve been having one yourselves – about rape. In other news, and this is without even leaving these shores, a catastrophically disabled man who had recently lost a legal challenge that would have allowed him to die, as he wished, without leaving others open to prosecution, did, in fact, die, after refusing food. But should he have had to resort to such measures?
We are not, in other words, short of urgent topics to ponder on.
Which is why a full-scale free-for-all about whether the newspaper that chose to print the nudie pics has stepped across a line, whether the newspapers that haven’t have been muzzled by the royal family, whether an unpaid female intern should have been asked to strip in order to “recreate” the scene, whether the mere existence of that thing called “the internet” renders all the above debates utterly meaningless, whether we should be paying for the bodyguards who oversaw all this revelry, whether we are nation that stands in shame or a nation that knows how to have a good time, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam and ad infinitum, is, frankly, a distraction.
The royals and the celebrities that dutifully – and in many cases, impressively – took the stand at Leveson are not, should not be, exempt from protection from the excesses of the press. The nature of their roles may make them targets of press intrusion, and that tricky elision from “of interest to the public” to “in the public interest” may be most compromised in their case; they are also, surely, in a position to best access expensive legal services in their defence. They are, however, citizens of the country, with the same rights as everyone else.
But what really sparked Leveson was widespread public revulsion at press intrusion – specifically the hacking of mobile phones – into the lives of ordinary people: into the families of a murdered schoolgirl, of dead British soldiers and of victims of the 7/7 bombs. It’s not far off a year since the Inquiry began; last week, it was still gathering evidence. Meanwhile, the press and the commentariat co-opt its agenda to talk about the antics of a rowdy young man with too much money. One hopes that this is not a sign that we haven’t learned a thing. But it doesn’t look great.