A private prince?

Amber Melville-Brown discusses the privacy pressures facing the baby Prince of Cambridge

The last vestige of real privacy known to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby boy was that which he experienced in the womb. Even then, while he was curled oblivious to it, outside speculation raged as to his gender, his name and his future.

Our new prince has been born into a world where privacy is a valuable but rare commodity. The courts have said that private and confidential information is like an ice-cube; give it to someone who refuses to keep it in the refrigerator and soon it will be nothing more than a pool of water. Indeed, today a myriad of modern communication tools ensures that every tiny droplet of private information is under threat of exposure to the world within seconds.

There is of course, a public interest in knowing of the birth of this new royal baby – and on knowing his gender; his parents have nimbly and genetically sidestepped the thorny issue of primogeniture.

It is a truism oft repeated in the courts but what the public is interested in, does not necessarily make it in the public interest. But such is the interest of the British public in the soap opera – as new Grandad Charles has called it – that is the Royal family, that considerable sections of the public will be interested in more or less everything about this new royal little critter – what he looks like, his first words, his first faltering steps and so on.

Mum and Dad – themselves young, part of the Twitter / Facebook / social media generation and faces of a new era for the Royal family – will likely understand the worldwide interest in their offspring and will accede to it to a certain extent, allowing the public to be informed about various special baby moments. But they have had their own brushes with publicity which may have left them somewhat bruised.

Kate drew William’s eye when, as a publicity-care-free student, she walked down a college catwalk in a dangerously diaphanous dress; but thereafter, their university courtship was conducted under the watchful eye of the media. The Duchess’ privacy was invaded again when sunbathing topless on private property, with long-lens-caught photographs published without authority in a French celebrity magazine.

In addition the very fact of the royal pregnancy was leaked when Australian radio presenters called the hospital where Kate had been admitted suffering from severe morning sickness. These modern instances were set against the backdrop of numerous previous royal private moments made public; Squidgygate, Camillagate, Fergie-toegate, Harry-strippokergate to swing open just a few.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be mindful of their and their child’s important public role and the public interest in it; but like all parents, Kate and Wills will want protectively to guard the privacy of their little prince charming from undue intrusion.

Indeed, the pair jealously guarded the first precious moments of life for their son, announcing him to no one, not even family, for four hours. A parent’s own actions in seeking to protect their child’s privacy will likely have a significant impact on the extent to which their child’s private life is up for grabs in the future, or whether aspects of it can realistically remain their own private property.

Only a matter of hours old, the new prince has a reasonable expectation of privacy, guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Like other children, that right is placed in the hands of his parents until he is old enough to exercise and protect it for himself. A recent Court of Appeal decision has reminded all those who bear the responsibility of protecting rights for minors that they risk those rights, through their own actions.

In AAA v Associated Newspapers Limited, Helen Macintyre brought an action on behalf of her three year old daughter after the Daily Mail published photographs of the toddler alongside an article speculating that she was the offspring of London Mayor, Boris Johnson (22 May 2013).

While the court recognised the importance of protecting the rights of children, and confirmed that the fact of her hitherto unknown paternity was private information, here the mother had let some of the air out of the child’s privacy balloon by commenting on it at a house party and by contributing to a magazine article which also speculated on the identity of Papa.

The somewhat deflated privacy balloon was then burst altogether with the sharp weapon of the father’s own reckless conduct, which the court found the media was entitled in pursuing its own Article10 right, to expose in the public interest, given he was a publicly elected official.

Unlike most of us, the Prince of Cambridge has been born not only with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a prying camera in his face. This newborn is by his very existence in the public interest, and his parents will need to learn how to protect their baby’s right to privacy while at the same time understanding the public’s right to know and not alienating the media should it responsibly go about its job of seeking to educate, entertain and inform. New parents have always had a lot to learn; but to combat the threat of viral reputational damage and irreversible privacy invasion, those of us bringing children into today’s plugged-in world need further to have reactions faster than a youngster on a Playstation.

Our modern and ever more technological world has been constantly chipping away at our privacy. Still, at least Kate herself was afforded a modicum more of it than royal ladies of old. She may have to face a barrage of photographers as she exits the hospital today with her new bundle of joy – but at least she was spared having to invite the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury into the birth chamber itself for verification purposes. Surely one privacy invasion too far today.

Withers partner Amber Melville-Brown