Prince Harry not the only one at risk of having dirty laundry aired


You don’t need to be famous for an online digital file to cause you major embarrassment, writes DONALD CLARKE

YOU HAVE, I assume, heard this juicy story about the British royal family. As one sibling behaves with sober, immaculate dignity, the other cavorts drunkenly in various lubricious hotspots. Hang on. Why are we still talking about poor Princess Margaret? Surely the time has come to move on.

Ha ha! Do you see what I did there? (Incidentally, this joke will also work for Edward VIII, Edward VII and a dozen other gin-soaked royal libertines.)

While the opinion pages mused upon Russian agitprop rockers and jaw-droppingly misinformed American politicians, the front end of the papers were worrying about what to do with photographs of a festive nude toff. Currently on best behaviour following the phone-hacking revelations, the British papers initially obeyed requests from some palace or other and declined to print images of Prince Harry cradling what, following a diktat from the Joke Police, we are obliged to call the “crown jewels”.

The tabloids found themselves propelled into an orgy of accidental satire. The Sun restaged the images using a reporter who didn’t look awfully like the party prince. The Mirror went for a selection of artists’ impressions from around the world. The Daily Mail’s website ran the results of a web search with all the relevant images rendered as polite blurs. (Obviously, being a big, serious paper, The Irish Times would never have troubled its readers with such squalid intrusions. So, don’t bother accusing us of being West Brits kowtowing to our real masters. All right?)

It’s difficult to overstate the absurdity of the situation. Any British person with a smartphone could reach into his or her pocket and, without even shifting weight from one foot to the other, conjure up an image of boozed-up royalty releasing steam in Las Vegas. If, however, they preferred to make an effort – get in a car, drive to the newsagent, hand over 80p – they would be denied any glimpse of . . . Do we still have to say “crown jewels”?

The newspapers’ obeisance was purely symbolic. In the 1930s, when the British press refused to run stories on Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson, they really did manage to keep large portions of the public in the dark.

Everybody involved in the current hoo-ha knows the images cannot be suppressed. The picture of Prince Harry, pink and uncovered following a game of “strip billiards”, has already become a contemporary pop icon to rank alongside Hugh Grant’s mugshot and that photo of the kitten in a bucket. You might not be able to find it in the Daily Express. But you can probably already see it on a T-shirt.

By yesterday, the Sun had bowed to the inevitable and published the naughty snaps.

Much of the commentary has been relatively forgiving. If various pundits are to be believed, this sort of behaviour is exactly what one would expect from a red-blooded 20-something on a weekend away. Really? Was everybody else getting naked in the presence of more than one person when I was a young fellow? Have times changed or was it just that nobody thought to invite me to that strip scrabble game with the exotic dancers?

Something has changed, of course. The weekend reveller would now be well advised to assume that virtually every action made in the presence of another person is being digitally recorded. In recent years, when researching interviews on various actors (let’s keep this vague), I have had to resist the temptation to access videos depicting them enjoying sexual activity with people to whom they were not then married.

There were rumours of “stag films” featuring many stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Those movies were, however, difficult to track down. Biff Inferno’s sex tape will be on the internet forever.

The unholy combination of camera phone and social network has achieved something that religion never quite managed. Firm believers, when cuddling up to their neighbour’s wife, could allow their faith to slide or could pretend that, for the length of a Barry White tune, God might be prepared to look the other way. The hand-held digital device is altogether less forgiving than outmoded deities.

What is the etiquette for contemporary sin? Is adultery now like press screenings for major motion pictures? Perhaps, as at those events, you are required to hand in your mobile phone before the lights go down. We live in a police state where everybody is a potential policeman. Even George Orwell didn’t see that coming.

At least God issued a handbook – available in two testaments – that gave some guidance as to what constituted a sin. Now, any form of sexual congress, simply by making it on to a digital file, can trigger significant embarrassment for the participants. You don’t even need to be famous. End a relationship badly and images of you in a state of comic arousal could be freely available before you’ve finished slamming the door.

We’d just got used to living without religiously inspired guilt. Now, this comes along. Will we never be set free?

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