When the maid of honour at last spring’s royal wedding inadvertently stole the show with a cheeky swing of silk derrière, it’s safe to assume Pippa Middleton had no idea what she was in for. Less than a year later, she is arguably the most hunted celebrity in Europe and, despite her lack of discernible talent, fast on her way to becoming one of the most photographed and publicly gossiped about women in the world. (Move over Kardashians: as the British would say, you’ve been pipped at the post.)
Interestingly, however, the rise of the Pippa phenomenon coincides with a time of uncharacteristic self-reflection for the British tabloid press and media in general. Earlier this month, the Daily Mail’s photo editor Paul Silva moaned about a deluge of Pippa pics, capturing the 28-year-old party planner’s every move—and outfit—that are flooding across his desk. He was testifying at the Leveson inquiry, the ongoing public hearings into the practices and ethics of the press following the phone hacking saga. “There is no reason to photograph her when she is out and about doing her own thing,” Silva said. “At the moment there are nine or 10 agencies outside her house. If she goes to get coffee, she goes back into her house, we get 300 to 400 pictures . . . There is no justification for using them.” He insisted that in recent months the paper had restricted its use of Pippa pics to ones taken at events where photographers are invited.
For those familiar with the Daily Mail and its racy online incarnation, Silva’s outpouring might sound a bit rich. Only a few weeks earlier, after all, his paper had run an old photo of Middleton and her now ex-boyfriend Alex Loudon out shopping, under the snarky, misogynistic headline, “Too sexy, too laid-back, too independent . . . Why some women just AREN’T wife material.”
Hypocritical? Perhaps. But then ethical consistency has never been a strong suit of the British gutter press, a brash and unrepentant tribe with a fondness for tones of salaciousness or prim moral outrage as needed.
But ethical change is afoot—on the surface anyway. Last fall, the Mail introduced a corrections column overseen by a specially appointed in-house readers’ editor (ombudsman). While proponents of self-regulation applauded, others such as the Observer’s readers’ editor Stephen Pritchard were quick to call foul. After unsuccessfully attempting to contact the Mail’s new corrections editor, Pritchard lamented that transparency was “never a popular notion in old Fleet Street, where to admit to your errors was seen as a sign of weakness that couldn’t be tolerated in the cutthroat race for circulation, but it’s fast becoming an issue that newspapers have to face.”
The Observer’s daily sister paper, the Guardian, in turn, was forced to make good on this stance when, just a few weeks into the Leveson inquiry, it incorrectly reported that the Sun was guilty of doorstepping Carine Patry Hoskins—a photogenic Leveson inquiry lawyer who trended worldwide on Twitter under the tag “#womanontheleft” after viewers noticed her gazing attentively at Hugh Grant during his testimony. The Guardian later apologized for the front-page article, which accused the Sun (the Murdoch-owed sister paper of the now defunct News of the World) of “blowing a giant raspberry at Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry, or perhaps casually defecating on his lordship’s desk while doing a thumbs-up sign.” The mini-debacle highlighted what Leveson has revealed to be more or less common practice in the backbiting British press: sling mud now, check facts later.
But let’s get back to Pippa. What with rumours of an upcoming book of party planning tips (for which she received a reported $640,000 advance) following hot on the heels of her breakup with former cricketer Loudon, the royal sister’s star shows little sign of fading. Tabloid culture might be under fire in Britain, but that doesn’t mean public appetite for its spoils shows any sign of waning. Over the holidays, countless celebrity news outlets on both sides of the pond pronounced on Pippa’s “undateable” status—the supposed combined result of fame, beauty and an unfortunate habit of “creating a circus” wherever she goes. Like Jennifer Aniston, Pippa has been cast in the well-worn role of sad singleton, the pretty girl who, despite her charms, just can’t find love—a beautiful loser to her rival sister, in this case the future queen.
Ethics aside, the entire British print media is in crisis, with the gutter press suffering an annual overall drop in readership of 8.6 per cent, according to the latest circulation figures. In the coming months, the urgent need for tougher self-regulation will undoubtedly have to be counterbalanced against the need to boost sales, as the tabs search for a sustainable business model. In the meantime, Pippa would be well-advised to hold on to her fascinator—we might not like to admit we’re watching her every move, but that doesn’t stop us from doing so.