William, Kate & the French Photo Trial

Prince William and Kate Middleton board a plane at Kuala Lumpur Airport for their trip up to Sabah.jpg

As you may recall, back in September 2012, while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were touring South East Asia, the French magazine, Closer, published photographs of the couple sunbathing on the terrace of a private residence in Provence. The home was owned by William’s cousin, David Armstrong-Jones (now Earl of Snowdon), and the images were captured from long-lens cameras. While any number of private holiday snaps have made their way to publication over the course of William and Kate’s relationship, these were a bit different because Kate was, well, topless.

A strongly-worded statement was issued at the time, as well as moves to block further publication of the photos, but the damage was done. They were available online and there wasn’t much the UK could do about stopping international titles from running them. The news hit as the couple were in the middle of their tour and while they handled it as gracefully as could be expected – maybe more so – by the end of the day, they looked grim heading back to their residence.

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Fast forward nearly five years and the trial is underway, with a verdict expected in early July. According to the BBC:

Paris-based agency photographers Cyril Moreau and Dominique Jacovides are accused of taking long-lens shots of the royals, including the topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge, from a public road.

The others accused in the case, being heard at Nanterre, near Paris, are Closer’s editor Laurence Pieau, Ernesto Mauri, chief executive of the Mondadori group which owns the magazine, La Provence photographer Valerie Suau, and Marc Auburtin, the paper’s publishing director at the time.

A prosecutor urged the court to impose “very significant fines” while a lawyer for Prince William and Catherine called for “very large damages”. Paul-Albert Iweins, representing Closer magazine, said the duke and duchess were hoping to claim 1.5 million euros (£1.3m) in compensation.

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The defense appears to be arguing that William and Kate are fair game – that following media coverage of the 2011 royal wedding, they’re public figures even in their private time and the photos cast them in a “positive light.” Not sure about the last argument there – while Kate sunbathing topless on a holiday certainly doesn’t cast her in a negative light, she received a fair amount of criticism for it at the time, including from a certain now-President:

Also per the BBC:

He said: “My wife and I thought that we could go to France for a few days in a secluded villa owned by a member of my family, and thus enjoy our privacy.

“We know France and the French, and we know that they are, in principle, respectful of private life, including that of their guests.”

He added: “The clandestine way in which these photographs were taken was particularly shocking to us as it breached our privacy.”

He said the images were “all the more painful” given the experience of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 as she was being pursued by photographers.

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I’m both surprised and not surprised that he referenced Diana, Princess of Wales here. Certainly it’s a potent allusion to make, particularly in France given that that’s where she died. And perhaps it strengthens the case in the courtroom – and certainly with public opinion – by subtly (or not so subtly) drawing a direct line between what happened to Diana and what happens when illegal photographs are allowed or encouraged. But it also made me wince a bit – as if that situation was being used as necessary or helpful. I’m not quite sure that’s a fair thing to say, though, because if anyone has a right to “use” her memory, it’s her sons.

The significance of this trial is that it shows William and Kate aren’t messing around when it comes to their privacy – a fact that has been on display in any number of ways since their wedding, but has certainly increased since Prince George’s birth in 2013. Certainly it’s easier for them to crack down on British outlets – a source of frustration for them as they compete with the unfettered international media – but it’s worth noting that they aren’t showing a hesitancy to aggressively pursue reporters and photographers who have crossed a line, in their opinion.

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I’m slightly ambivalent on this matter. Of course these photos were wrong and it was a terrible choice to publish them. Kate has all of my sympathy on this one and I don’t begrudge them going after the publication or the photographers. However, the rising friction between the Cambridges and the British media makes me very uneasy and any and all precedents that impact the media’s ability to report and make the call of what to report makes me err on the side of over-caution. Topless photos? No. Holding the Royal Family accountable and occasionally making them uncomfortable or angry? Well, yes. We, the public, should demand and expect “eyes on” our political and public figures (let’s just throw the BRF broadly into some amalgam of those categories…).

But where that line is drawn is an intense tight-rope walk and what the verdict is in this case will be used as a reference for decades to come.

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