Topless pictures of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, in French magazine Closer are testing the reactions of the U.K. royal family and the British public to intrusive media coverage after years of restraint, lawyers said.
Closer, which published several photos on Sept. 14 of Kate sunbathing with her husband Prince William on a private estate in France, was probably inspired by News Corp.’s Sun tabloid in Britain, which broke with traditional practice last month by running images of Prince Harry naked at a party in Las Vegas, said Caroline Jan, a media lawyer at Kingsley Napley in London.
French tabloids had self-censored their coverage of the royals following the death of the princes’ mother, Diana Princess of Wales, in Paris 15 years ago while being pursued by paparazzi on motorbikes, Jan said. The Kate Middleton photos are a sign the French public’s demand for gossip is forcing a change to that approach, she said.
“They’ve taken the risk -- having seen the Sun publish photos of Harry, they just wanted to see what would happen,” Jan, who is French, said in telephone interview about Closer’s publication. “They are testing the law and they are testing the reaction of the people.”
Prince William and Kate will sue the magazine owned by the Berlusconi family’s Arnoldo Montadori Editore Spa, the couple’s office said in an e-mailed statement on Sept. 14. Britain’s Parliament called for legal action hours earlier and Prime Minister David Cameron, through his spokesman, said he believes that the royal couple “are entitled to their privacy.”
The couple plans to file a criminal complaint today against the unidentified photographer, St. James’s Palace said. The filing will be made with French prosecutors, who will then decide whether to take the case.
Laurence Pieau, the editor in chief, was cited by AFP Sept. 14 saying that there’s “nothing shocking” about the photos. “They show a young woman sunbathing topless, like you see millions of at the beach.”
Pieau declined to comment today ahead of a court hearing on the matter in Nanterre near Paris.
It’s “crystal clear” Kate will win a lawsuit against Closer, said Yann Colin, a French lawyer who represents celebrities suing over tabloid photos.
“She could obtain a large amount of damages, by French standards,” said Colin, due to the size of the six-page spread and the fact that she was topless on private property.
While France has tougher privacy rules than Britain, neither country’s laws are strong enough to discourage tabloids from violating a celebrity’s privacy to get front-page scoops, said Mark Stephens, a media lawyer in London who has worked on privacy cases involving the royal family.
“They can’t use the courts to reverse the trends -- the law is too weak and ineffectual to assist them in this case,” Stephens said in a phone interview. “Post-publication punishments are clearly an insufficient deterrent -- it’s a major problem at the moment in France and the U.K.”
Privacy lawsuits against French tabloids are common and are usually resolved with damage awards of between 1,000 euros ($1,300) and 15,000 euros, as well as printed notices telling readers the tabloid was condemned in court, said Christophe Bigot, a Paris-based media lawyer who hasn’t represented Closer.
French privacy fines are set “based on personal suffering, and traditionally French judges assess these indemnities much lower than Anglo-Saxon judges,” Bigot said in a phone interview.
Since Middleton was hidden from view, her award would probably be in the higher range, as much as 10,000 euros, though there is no specific limit to such awards, he said.
While Closer could get “clobbered” for damages in France and other countries in which the photos may be published, the magazine has bought notoriety that can’t be gained through traditional advertising, said Stephens, who represents Bloomberg News in some media cases.
“The notoriety of the Prince Harry photographs has taught publishers a lesson that they can engage with the viral use of images and gather a lot of attention,” Stephens said. The attention won may seem to be worth a court battle, he said.
News Corp.’s U.K. publisher, News International, said in an Aug. 23 statement about the Prince Harry photos that printing them was a matter of “freedom of the press” and that the images had already been seen online by millions of people worldwide after being published by the U.S. gossip website TMZ.com.
Sun Managing Editor David Dinsmore made the choice after the royal family sent legal letters to British newspapers urging them not to use the images, taken by a phone at a hotel party, because doing so would be a violation Prince Harry’s privacy. The Sun won’t publish the Middleton photos because she was in a private area, Dinsmore said.
“The Sun has no intention of breaching the royal couple’s privacy by publishing these intrusive pictures,” Dinsmore said in a Sept. 14 statement. “The circumstances are very different to those relating to the photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas.”
Stephens said the photos in the Sun and Closer both represent a “watershed” moment illustrating the traditional media’s desire to keep up with the free flow of information online. Similar photos of Diana and Prince William’s father Prince Charles, taken years ago, weren’t seen by as many people or as quickly, he said.
The photographs of Middleton couldn’t have been taken unless the photographer was on the private grounds of the estate, meaning a law was most likely broken, said Stephens.
“A criminal offense has been committed in order to obtain the photograph,” Stephens said. “It is my understanding that trespassing in France as in England is a criminal offense.”
Tabloids in Britain have been under scrutiny since a phone-hacking conspiracy was uncovered at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid and police started arresting Sun journalists over alleged bribes paid to public officials. A judge who oversaw a media ethics inquiry triggered by the scandals will file a report on the industry and possible new regulations by the end of the year.