Sophie and the Sheikh – a case for the PCC?

9 April 2001 – President George W. Bush notwithstanding, we live in an environmentally-conscious world; so how is it that the News of the World can justify the destruction of so many trees, not to mention the expenditure of energy, in producing 10 pages of meretricious rubbish on the Sophie Rhys-Jones affair? Unlike the PCC, PressWise carries no torch for the royal family, and if the Countess of Wessex had truly been caught with her hand in the cookie-jar this might have been considered a genuine piece of public interest journalism. But she wasn’t. And it wasn’t. Assuming that the transcript of the tapes was full and accurate, the Countess had little to apologise for beyond a degree of naivety hardly befitting a self-professed expert in the field of public relations.

If the public relations company R-JH was improperly trading off its association with the Royal family that would be a legitimate target for journalistic investigation. But hardly a sensational revelation: who seriously thinks that any commercial organisation employing a royal would not expect to benefit from the kudos? As for the suggestion that Prince Edward’s company Ardent Films is making improper use of contacts made while conducting official palace business abroad, that too is a perfectly proper subject for investigation. Again, it may be improper behaviour, but it is hardly surprising; the British establishment are just as venal as anyone else – remember Mark Thatcher?

The side-bars to this story are far more interesting than the dull tale which finally appeared on Sunday. There are questions to be asked:

Exactly what advice was given to the Palace by Lord Wakeham, which led to the disastrous interview given to the NoW by Ms Rhys-Jones on the subject of her husband’s sexuality? And why was he involved at all? Of course, Lord Wakeham famously assures the public that the PCC’s services are the same for princes and paupers alike – but when was the last time he went running to the doorstep of some hapless complainant who wanted advice on how to get redress from intrusive journalism?

Since when did an investigative journalist surrender evidence in return for an exclusive interview with the target of their investigations? Such facilities have never been offered to Mahmood’s other ‘ordinary people’ targets. The technique is more in line with the NoW‘s way of getting women to talk about their sexual exploits with male celebrities – a none too subtle form of persuasion in which the woman is told they will publish a lurid story anyway, but if she is willing to take some money at least her side of the story will be heard. And then the rest of the media brand her as a kiss and tell bimbo.

Who leaked the story to the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror which contained far more damaging – and apparently inaccurate – quotations from the Countess? Perhaps the offended parties will now lodge a complaint with the PCC against the MoS and the SM, which are clearly in breach of the Code of Practice, Article I (I): Newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material, including pictures. If they fail to do so, why not? And isn’t it time that the PCC took a more proactive stance against journalistic practices which cry out to be investigated, rather than wait for complaints which, for fear of causing further embarrassment, may never come?

The whole sorry mess is a classic example of the decline of investigative journalism, which has degenerated into a prurient celebrity-chase. Mazher Mahmood and his team would be better employed in exposing a few genuine public scandals. The trouble is that the real crooks, unlike the Countess of Wessex, can spot a sheikh-down at fifty paces. Whatever happened to Insight, not to mention The Times‘ News Team of blessed memory?

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 42)

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