The British press took a break from the foot-and-mouth disease beat (1,141 confirmed cases as of Tuesday morning) and endless speculation about the date of the next general election (probably June 7, though Tony Blair hasn’t made a formal announcement) to fixate on what the Financial Times described as “the minor indiscretion of a minor member of the royal family.” On Sunday, the tabloid News of the World, Britain’s top-selling paper, published the transcripts of secretly taped conversations involving Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who is married to the queen’s youngest son, Edward; her business partner Murray Harkin; and undercover NotW journalists who posed as Arab businessmen shopping for a new PR firm. The paper had earlier promised to suppress the tapes in exchange for an exclusive interview with the countess, published last week, in which she denied rumors that Prince Edward is gay. The News of the World claimed that it changed its mind about publishing the transcripts after other newspapers published inaccurate stories. The tapes, reported in excruciating detail even by papers such as the Guardian, who claimed to be appalled by the News of the World’s actions, show Harkin admitting illegal drug use and offering to arrange gay sex parties for clients, and the countess making indiscreet but trivial remarks about public figures, including other members of the royal family. On Sunday the queen issued a statement deploring the press’s campaign of “entrapment, subterfuge, innuendo and untruths,” and on Monday Harkin resigned, and the countess stepped down as chairman of the PR firm they co-founded four years ago.
The broadsheets sided with the queen, denouncing the NotW’s sting operation. The Independent dismissed the News of the World’s claims that it was justified in breaking the British press’s code of practice, which prohibits journalists from using misrepresentation or subterfuge to obtain information or pictures except “in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by other means”: “The tittle-tattle extracted from this sting cannot possibly justify the use of deception.” The pro-monarchy Daily Telegraph thundered, “Even by the standards of the News of the World, it was a truly abominable way to behave.” The Daily Mirror, however, claimed:
She didn’t say what she did to a fake sheikh because she thought she was a world expert on current affairs. … She did it to make money out of her royal connections. Which, we must conclude, is how she regularly conducted her business. If ever there were a case where a newspaper was justified in using subterfuge—what is known as entrapment—this was it.
Many papers took the opportunity to assess the future of the British monarchy. The Independent observed: “The trailing adjuncts to the House of Windsor have shown that sure suicidal instinct that is so much more effective than any reasoned arguments for reform. The case for a slimmed-down, bicycling monarchy is suddenly more persuasive.” The Guardian noted that the British royals are not disposed to adopt the modest, humdrum ways of Scandinavian monarchs: [T]he royals don’t want to be ordinary, they demand to be extraordinary. They want to star in their own soap, to enjoy great polling results, to be rich and adored.”
An op-ed in the Daily Telegraph attacked the news values that placed the royal rumble above foot-and-mouth: “[I]t does seem infuriating and inexplicable that a country caught up in a really serious problem can have its public attention so effectively distracted by—what? Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just an irrelevant person making crass remarks that would be of no interest whatever if she had not married the person she had—who also happens to be profoundly boring.” The Guardian, however, laid the blame with the British public’s apparently insatiable appetite for royal sleaze:
[E]ditors would soon stop running royal stories if there were widespread public disgust at their prurience. The contrary is true: the greater the intrusion, the bigger the sales. The British public laps up every tapped phone, stolen picture, entrapped countess and bugged conversation it is offered.
Follow that story! In January, this column reported on the trial of the “metric martyr,” a British grocer prosecuted for refusing to sell produce in metric measurements; on Monday, Steven Thoburn was convicted. The Euro-skeptic Daily Telegraph denounced the verdict: “[The] judgment marks a defeat for Britain—not just in the literal sense of confirming the supremacy of EU law over domestic law, but also in the wider sense of striking at the values of freedom and fair play on which our own justice system has always rested.” The Daily Mirror said the case should never have been brought “because it gave publicity to an absurd man fighting an absurd case. … There are really vital issues over Europe. How fruit is weighed is not one of them.” … A March column discussed the Swiss press’s regrets that U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson had elected not to seek an extension of her term of office. Last week, Le Temps of Geneva announced that Robinson will stay for one more year. An unidentified source told the paper: “If, in resigning, she was able to attract attention to the financial misery of the HCHR, she has scored a great coup. But it would be terrible if she stayed purely for administrative reasons—to allow Kofi Annan more time to find a replacement.” … In January, a column mentioned that French authorities were investigating the use of false passports by soccer players from outside the European Union. (European soccer clubs are usually limited to three “foreign”—i.e., non-EU—players, so EU citizenship enhances players’ earning potential.) Last week, France’s Le Monde reported that three South American players were found guilty of falsely obtaining passports; the athletes were fined between $20,500 and $41,000 and were banned from entering France for two years. Investigations are also currently underway in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Britain.