Topless Princess Kate Pics Spur Privacy Issues

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A French magazine has published photos of the Duchess of Cambridge topless, causing a new scandal for the royal family. As The New York Times reported,

In a dispute evoking the furor that swirled around press coverage of Princess Diana, Britain’s royal household on Friday issued a powerful rebuke to a French magazine that published paparazzi photographs of Kate Middleton, the wife of Diana’s elder son, William, sunbathing topless at a secluded and upscale villa in the lavender fields of Provence.

The photos were published less than a month after another young member of the royal family, Prince Harry, was photographed naked in Las Vegas. What privacy issues are involved here?

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In the United States, citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy, especially on private property and in places like restrooms, hotel rooms and homes. An exception is made for people who have careers as public figures, including actors, singers and politicians. The idea is that if you make money from being known by the public you can’t expect the level of privacy that ordinary citizens have. (In Great Britain the situation is a bit different; though rules about paparazzi changed somewhat after the 1997 death of Princess Diana of Wales, who died at the hands of a drunk driver in France while being pursued by press.)

It’s a different matter when celebrities are in public spaces such as beaches, public parks or cities. They have the right to be there — and so do you. Anyone with a camera can take as many photos as they like. Some hotel properties offer private beaches (and even private islands, such as billionaire Richard Branson’s Caribbean retreat Necker Island) for celebrities who want total privacy.

The Duchess and her husband Prince William were on private property at a French resort when they were photographed presumably off-limits to the public. But in today’s world of hidden cameras and powerful zoom lenses, there’s really no place for a celebrity to hide from determined paparazzi. Even if professional shutterbugs are kept away, the amount of money offered by magazines and tabloids for photos would tempt any maid, clerk, groundskeeper, or chauffer to risk their jobs.

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The royal family has been enormously successful in managing Kate Middleton’s entry into royalty over the past few years. They helped make sure that she is known around the world, and they can’t expect to have total control over her image.

In fact, Middleton rose to fame largely on the power of image and photographs. Britons didn’t warmly embrace Middleton because of her personal attributes, intelligence or academic achievements (most Brits still know relatively little about her), but instead because of her beauty and poise. Middleton is perhaps the most photographed person alive today, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that photographers who pursue her want more than official, carefully stage-managed photo opportunities.

Celebrities and the royal family know that the press is a double-edged sword and sometimes they exploit it for their own purposes. It’s not uncommon for celebrities themselves to tip off paparazzi and press photographers as to their whereabouts so they can get “candid” photos of them in public, or canoodling with a new paramour. Any publicity is good publicity in Hollywood. Many have suggested that the spate of “accidental” panty (and panty-free) upskirt flashing by Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears a few years ago was not an embarrassing nudity gaffe but instead a media-savvy mini-scandal ensuring their presence in the tabloids.

Middleton is of course not seeking publicity from the photos, and the Royal Palace has dubbed the photos a “grotesque” invasion of privacy and threatened legal action. In an ideal world, Middleton should be free to spend a tan line-free day in the sun any time she likes without being photographed. But even in her rarefied world — of kings, queens, princes and princesses — that’s not realistic.