Kate's game of selective privacy

A confusing message on public photos

When Hello magazine bested the rest of the world’s media with exclusive pictures of Kate carrying now-seven-month-old Prince George at a Caribbean airport, it did so with the acceptance of Kate, duchess of Cambridge and her husband, Prince William.

Once the innocuous, but valuable, photos of a perfectly coiffed Kate and her baby flashed around the world, royal sources told the media that Kensington Palace, the royal couple’s new base of operations, hadn’t objected to them because they were snapped, “in a public place, without any harassment or pursuit.”

That’s a radical departure from William and Kate’s previous privacy policy. Beyond obvious invasions of privacy—those infamous topless photos of Kate taken when she was on vacation, which caused a furious Prince William and his wife to launch legal action against the French tabloid that printed them—they’ve consistently criticized the mainstream media for publishing pictures taken when they weren’t on official engagements. As the Telegraph pointed out, “Only last week, the Palace had asked newspapers not to print photographs of a grumpy-looking Duke of Cambridge getting off a train at Cambridge station.” And when the same paper published pictures of Kate at a grocery store shortly after giving birth to George, the palace made its unhappiness clear.

As Roy Greenslade of the Guardian noted at the time, “It has been assumed by editors for several years that once people step out in public they cannot claim to have “a reasonable expectation of privacy. But the palace has sought to redefine that interpretation, especially on behalf of Prince William and his wife. Aides have complained to editors about other pictures of the Duchess, whether alone or with Prince William, taken in the last 18 months, although no formal complaint about their use has been made to the PCC [Press Complaints Commission.] Instead, there have been discreet calls or letters to editors asking them to desist. That strategy seems to have made some editors nervous enough not to publish.”

Yet when Hello got the first snaps that the world’s seen of Prince George since his christening in October, there was no pushback from the palace at all. And that raises troubling issues of whether William and Kate are setting up a double standard—that they’ll complain when they don’t like the photographic results, but approve when they do. That’s a path trodden by many a celebrity—usually with unhappy results. The Telegraph consulted an expert, who pointed out the dangers:

Chris Hutchings, a privacy expert with the law firm Hamlins, said the Royal family had a fine line to tread between what is invasive and what is not, but they would risk accusations of image control if they were inconsistent in their guidance to the media. He said: “Privacy is a very uncertain area of the law. It has ebbed and flowed over the last 10 years, but what previous cases have established is that that there should be a degree of consistency [by complainants]. “If you do permit some things and not others it is a form of image control as opposed to a form of privacy.”

And as Victoria Arbiter, CNN’s royal contributor, notes on her blog, the acceptance of those Hello paparazzi pictures means the once-firm no-go privacy zone is now unclear: “Moving forward, it does beg the question: what qualifies as a public place? The airport? Check. The beach? That’s a negative. So what about the park? The supermarket? Starbucks?”

When George takes his first steps, says his first words, has his first public temper tantrum, his parents may come to rue their Hello decision.