Boy meets girl. Boy takes girl back to penthouse apartment for a game of ‘strip billiards’. Boy is not very good at billiards. Boy has picture taken with girl (who, it appears, is equally bad at the game). Some wag present takes photos of proceedings. Pictures of this scene of youthful exuberance launch into cyberspace.
But this is no ordinary young man. Prince Harry (for it is he) is third in line to the throne. This presents a not unsubstantial problem for royal minders who have done so much to airbrush his previous indelicacies. As long as the Monarchy matters so does Harry’s proximity to it.
It is, in Walter Bagehot’s famous phrase, ‘the dignified part of the constitution’, which endures in public estimation because it never lets ‘daylight in on magic’.
Not so much daylight in this instance as the flash of a digital camera, but the point is the same. Once we see the Royals as mere mortals we start to wonder what gives them the right – the hereditary, nay divine right, to sit above us?
Everything in this game is about perception. This is why St. James’ Palace officials have swung into action, urging UK media organisations not to publish the pictures. Only for The Sun to do so this morning.
The enduring problem for the Royal Family is that there is no easy demarcation line between their public role and private freedom. Prince Harry’s position (as the spare to the heir’s heir) is owed to an accident of birth rather than having earned any mandate.
It is easier when holding MPs accountable for their public duties to determine where that line is. If a bunch of MPs on a select committee junket were caught playing strip billiards in the penthouse of a five-star hotel with young women, the reaction would be predictable and the consequences summary.
We would not be complaining about intrusion into their privacy but about how they were letting the side down and demeaning their office, not to mention wasting taxpayers’ money. We would defend our right to know what the buggers were getting up to.
But if an MP was caught in similar circumstances on holiday, paid for out of their own pocket, they would have an absolute right to have their frolicking treated as a private matter.
The royals, in contrast, have no on/off switch. Their very existence is a public role – and one we are obliged to pay for through the civil list. Of course Harry didn’t ask for this, but if its privacy he craves, then he can always renounce his role and opt to live as a private figure.
The Sun may be guilty of many things, but on this occasion all the paper has done is prick the pomposity of the Royal Family’s flunkies in thinking they can serve the equivalent of a D-Notice on the British media just because they have a public relations problem.
Are we obliged to forget what many of us have already seen? Are we expected to observe a self-denying ordinance from using the internet? I first saw the photos of Harry courtesy of that radical organ of dissent The Daily Telegraph, which helpfully hyperlinked to the TMZ gossip site which originally broke the story. The words horse, bolted and stable door seem oddly appropriate.
The Sun was right to publish in the interests, both of press freedom and to defend the right of we, the Monarch’s subjects, the tax-paying public, to know what these special, exulted people do with the public money that sustains the lifestyles to which they have become all too accustomed.
This said, Prince Harry seems a decent enough sort to me. Personally, he passes my ‘I’d have a pint with him’ test. But that’s the problem. Once we peer into their rarefied world we see that our royals, like Hans Christian Anderson’s famous Emperor, are wearing no clothes.
Literally, it turns out.