I have made it very clear in the past that I do not have a great deal of sympathy with the monarchy or with the military, or with other things that tend to be stalwarts of the conservative value set. Peculiarly I now find myself agreeing with Boris Johnson when he said that ‘I think it’d be disgraceful if a chap wasn’t allowed to have a bit of fun in Las Vegas anyway’.
I suspect Johnson’s view is coloured by a certain view of what a red-blooded young ‘chap’ should enjoy getting up to, combined with a certain laissez-faire attitude to people’s private conduct.
In some ways I do agree on both points, although from a very different political perspective. It really should not shock or surprise anyone to hear that an army guy actually rather enjoys fooling around with naked women, and I have no problem with that. There are loads of major problems with the whole idea of a military. I suspect that it is unfortunately necessary that we should have an army (albeit on a much smaller scale than at present) but it is still a dreadful reality that military training involves teaching people to kill other human beings, being able to normalise this to some extent, and surrendering moral autonomy to a chain of command. The fact that members of the military enjoy close physical contact with attractive naked people really should not be a cause for concern; in fact it is at least a remnant of autonomous humanity that they can cling on to – good for them. Any talk of ‘bringing the forces into disrepute’ or other sermonising bollocks is precisely that. The army invades service-people’s lives to a massive extent, and its culture probably also has some impact on sexual attitudes, but an explicit proscription on what people can get up to in hotel rooms is stamping its authoritarian foot in places that are undoubtedly excessive and unnecessary, even within the very odd and morally questionable requirements of a functioning military.
I would say similar things about the very closely connected institution of the royal family, although there are none of the compelling reasons for its continued existence as there are for the military. The whole idea of royalty steps on the principle of people being free to develop their own life-plans. While we all have to respond to the historical and cultural factors that partially shape our identities, I strongly believe that nobody’s life story should be completely written for them from the moment of their birth. Harry is lashing out and getting up to stuff that he actually wants to do – I’d be exactly the same in his situation (as if I needed that sort of excuse). And strip billiards: that is frankly a hilarious subversion of the notion of the proper recreational activities of the English gentleman, well done.
Even if we thought that we had some right to know what a future king is getting up to, this surely wouldn’t apply here. Harry’s line in succession means that he is unlikely to be king, if at all, for forty years. It does not seem vital that we know what the monarch was getting up to in a bedroom four decades ago, and even if it were, this would only seem to be the case once it was apparent that he was going to become the monarch in the immediate future.
The British press is saying a lot of ridiculously pompous and falsely high-minded things in defence of their coverage of the story and publication of the photographs. The Sun’s managing editor David Dinsmore said that not publishing the photographs would be ‘perverse’. The argument for this is that they are already widespread in the public domain, but so what? Most newspapers last time I checked were not reproductions of every corner of the internet – even the most inane tabloids are not cover to cover hardcore pornography and lolcats. The job of newspapers is to be selective, and to figure out which stories and images are genuinely in the public interest.
Now we should note here that ‘in the public interest’ does not necessarily mean the same as ‘what the public are interested in’. Dinsmore argued that the Sun’s readers had ‘a right’ to see the photographs. I am happy to admit that my philosophical research on theories of rights is now a year or two old, and that this field is one that is continually developing, but last time I checked, gawping at photographs of anyone naked, however appealing it may be, was not considered by any reputable figures in the field to be essential content of anyone’s claim rights.
The thing with rights is that we need to understand them as fundamentally connected to duties. There are various different ways that this connection can be articulated (if you are interested, have a look at Welsey Newcombe Hohfeld’s page-turner Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning) but the most common form of right in moral, political and legal theory is the ‘claim-right’. When someone has a claim-right, this means that they have a moral, political or legal claim that some other party, be it a named group or individual or people in general, have a duty to fulfil. If I have a claim-right to some piece of information or imagery, as in the case of the Harry porn, this means that either everyone, or some specific person has a duty concerning my access to it.
At its most minimal, this might be a negative right. All this means is that nobody should be permitted to prevent me from accessing it. If this is what is at stake here, then The Sun’s decision to publish has nothing to do with the right – the pictures are, as Dinsmore himself said, already out there. Nobody is standing in my way of sitting at my laptop with a chilled glass of white enjoying an afternoon of Harry-gazing, although as it happens I think that there are far preferable ways of satisfying those sorts of urges, online and otherwise.
Another kind of claim-right is a positive right. This is presumably what Dinsmore means if he means anything at all. This means not only that people are not permitted to prevent me from accessing the content of my claim, but that some person, group, or people in general are under an obligation actively to do something to allow my access to it. This is presumably why Dinsmore feels the need to publish – the weight of responsibility on his shoulders concerning this grave act of public service must be absolutely immense. This is not, as it turns out, a positive claim-right in rem (meaning that everyone has a duty to meet my claim) it is, it seems, a positive claim-right in personam, which means that it falls upon a specified person, in this case the saintly Dinsmore, to exercise his active duty of hawking dirty photos.
Apologies for all the jargon I chucked your way in the past few paragraphs (dry formal rights theory dripping in sarcasm probably isn’t everyone’s idea of good holiday reading) but I think that a proper examination of what it might mean for someone to have a right shows Dinsmore’s claims to be enormously confused. His ‘public domain’ argument establishes, at best, a negative right. This implies absolutely nothing about the rightness or otherwise of The Sun printing the pictures. In fact, if we are to take him seriously in his conclusions, it would suggest that the press are continually under active moral, legal or political duties to publish everything that is already out there. This would be a serious, groundless and demanding restriction on the freedom of the press, dictating not just occasional restraint, but also determining editorial content.
I have already dealt with the suggestion that the public may have a right to know because of Harry bringing either the royal family or the military into disrepute, but the most convincing ‘public interest’ defence given so far relates to security. It has been argued that the publication of the photographs highlights a major security risk to members of the royal family which needs to be addressed. But hang on a minute, what is actually being said here? Is the argument that a 28 year old man, well aware of his own high profile and capable of making his own choices, should not be able to invite women back to his room for a game of strip billiards? Come on, we’ve all done it. In this situation, Harry is entitled to weigh up the risks to his security. On this occasion he decided to take the chance, and for pretty darn understandable reasons. We should also note that he didn’t seem to require much help in searching for hidden weapons. This ‘security risk’ is one that cannot be avoided unless we were prepared to do so by restricting what consenting adults are allowed to do in the bedroom.
What I do not want to do here is offer an argument for gagging the press. I am undecided about whether Harry should have been able to prevent the publication of the photographs, but I am certainly not in favour of the press being banned from running the story.
But what I do oppose is the lofty claims about press responsibilities and the rights of the British public. There is no duty to run with this stuff, and we have no right to see it. I would have more respect for people like Dinsmore if they stuck with arguments about how they should not be restricted in running stories, even when they are sordid, unnecessary and tinged with a salacious false disapproval. Dinsmore could argue that while he has no obligation to feature this stuff, nobody has a right to stop him: then the ethical burden would be on his grubby little sensationalist conscience, and not shrugged off disingenuously in the name of some concocted higher good.