Tabloid newspapers are under attack from liberals who hate their Brexit-voting readers, celebrities and Prince Harry, whose evocation of Princess Diana’s death ignores reports she was a willing participant in the publicity game, writes John McLellan.
WAGatha Christie, WAGgro, WAGamama, WAGyu beef…. At a time when the nation desperately needs to be brought some gaiety, blessed relief from Brexit has come in the unlikely guise of the Queen and Princess of footballers’ Wives And Girlfriends, Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy.
God bless you, ladies; thanks to your social media spat we have been given the news equivalent of the half-time oranges while Bomber Boris tries to rise at the Dispatch Box to nod one past Crusher Corbyn and link up with Leo “Lion Cub” Varadkar to dribble between Chopper Grieve and Oily Letwin and shoot into Die Kaiserin Merkel’s top corner in the 89th minute.
Except the saga of how Rebekah Vardy – or at least her Instagram account – came to be accused of leaking private information from Mrs Rooney’s account to The Sun newspaper has fed the fire about Press standards reignited by the complaint by Prince Harry against the Mail on Sunday for publishing details of his wife’s letter to her estranged father and his decision to sue The Sun and the Daily Mirror for historic phone hacking.
Days before, cricketer Ben Stokes vented his anger at The Sun’s story about the murder of his half-brother and sister 30 years ago by his mother’s estranged husband, who had then killed himself, and the Ashes hero is apparently now suing News Group for breach of privacy.
The anti-popular Press campaign Hacked Off wasted little time in claiming the Ben Stokes and Duchess of Sussex complaints were proof that Press reform had failed, the Leveson Inquiry should be re-opened and tighter press regulations introduced through statute as contained in the 2013 Royal Charter, a scheme cooked up by none other than Oliver Letwin in 2013 with the enthusiastic support of then Attorney General Dominic Grieve.
‘Someone I love is commoditized’
It’s arguable the Ben Stokes story was an error of judgement, but if re-publishing information which had been in the public domain, or indeed details of a letter which is property of the recipient, are deemed to be breaches of privacy then it will break new legal ground.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are becoming serial litigants against the Press, with Prince Harry winning a complaint against Mail Online in 2017 for running pictures of him in his swimming trunks on a private beach in Jamaica, then a privacy claim against an agency in May this year and last month a correction and apology from The Sun over a story about a car park at their Frogmore home.
Predictably, and to an extent understandably, the ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales has loomed large in the row over the Mail on Sunday’s publication of the letter to Thomas Markle, with Prince Harry making a direct comparison between the treatment of his mother and his wife.
“My deepest fear is history repeating itself,” he said. “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
Someone who understood how Diana and the “powerful forces” worked is Nicholas Coleridge, the retiring UK chief of Vogue and Tatler publisher Conde Nast who has just published an autobiography in which he details how she operated at a glitzy lunch he had organised. Her private secretary insisted there should be no publicity so Coleridge rang every guest to swear them to secrecy.
“At the end of the lunch, I walked her to her car, which was waiting outside Vogue House,” he remembers. “Suddenly, four paparazzi sprang forward, taking a thousand snaps. Afterwards, I rang a newspaper friend, to see if he could find out who’d leaked her visit. He rang back in five minutes.
“‘I just spoke to our picture desk,’ he said. ‘Diana rang herself from her car, on the way to lunch. She often tips them off about where she’ll be.’”
Princess Diana may well have become a commodity, but she was a willing participant and if publicity is a high-stakes game, she was a high-roller. In the end, she was not killed by the Press but because she was not wearing a seatbelt in the back of a car driven too fast by someone who was drunk.
Rooney pulls off a Press sting
Coleen Rooney too has played the Press, in an elaborate sting to catch, expose and humiliate the person who was leaking stories about her. Aside from whether Rebekah Vardy was responsible – she insists she is a victim of a hacker and is also seeking legal advice – attention has also turned to The Sun’s involvement.
In much the same way as the Sussexes believe the Mail on Sunday had no right to publish the contents of her letter to her father, questions are being asked about The Sun’s right to publish information obtained from Mrs Rooney’s private Instagram account.
As The Sun was satisfied the Rooney material had not been obtained by subterfuge, had been published by her, even to a small group, and had not received rebuttals or instructions to desist when her representatives were approached, in the murky world of publicists and celebrity manipulation it seems like fair game. And having posted the bogus stories on her Instagram account specifically to see if stories would appear, publication was an essential component of Mrs Rooney’s sting.
Despite being responsible for fake news, Mrs Rooney has emerged with a glowing reputation for tenacity and guile, but perhaps wisely the Hacked Off website didn’t run with it. Not so BBC Scotland which ran a sniffy feature in the Kaye Adams show on Thursday morning, in which I participated, to turn the story round on The Sun. Ms Adams bawled on live radio when I expressed a view that having checked the material with the apparent source and sought comment the paper was entitled to publish their stories. Heinous.
It has long been a feature of Press critics that popular culture and celebrity gossip has no place in “proper” journalism, so while footballers and their spouses are paid riches beyond even what the tax-payer generously hands over to minor royalty the public has no right to information about them other than that spoon fed by publicists.
The irony is that The Sun is now being criticised precisely because it published stories it had been fed. The liberal elite will not be happy until the last celebrity agent has been strangled with the last copy of a Red Top, but it’s not really the papers they hate, it’s the readers. And a lot of them voted Leave.