01/10/2012

Thieves put Pippa's stolen photos on the market

The murky and muddy side of journalism has been on public trial in Britain for more than two months at the Leveson inquiry into media ethics.

It is not a pretty picture, but necessary in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that took down News of the World last summer. The inquiry is intended as a sort of castor oil for the soul -- tastes bad but good for what ails you.

PippaA parade of witnesses, both famous and infamous, have told their media horror stories, and it should come as no surprise that the Royal Family figures into some of the discussion. This week, even Pippa Middleton was drawn into the fray, as described in this tale from the Sun's royal editor to the inquiry:

Pippa, the Duchess of Cambridge's almost-as-famous sister, was the victim of a couple of thieves who stole a memory stick a camera in her car in 2008. Included were photos of Prince William and Kate taken while on holiday in the Caribbean.

Figuring to cash in, the culprits offered to sell the pictures to the tabloid Sun newspaper for $40,000 (25,000 pounds).

The paper's royal editor, Duncan Larcombe, told the inquiry there was a policy at the time -- this was all pre-engagement, remember -- not to print photos of Kate unless she was with Prince William and under protection. Suspicious of the photos, the editor called Clarence House to check on the source of the photos.

Shortly after, the police contacted the Sun to tell them that Pippa Middleton's car was broken into and there was camera on the back. The Sun quickly handed the memory stick over to police, though they made sure to have a good look at the photos it held before they did.

Kelvin MacKenzieThe thieves were eventually charged. The Sun never ran any photos, but did describe them in an article.

The incident's most telling feature is not that the paper resisted the urge publish pictures that pushed the privacy envelope, but that the thieves were confident they could sell them to a newspaper. The notion that newspapers were engaged in a lot of chequebook journalism had clearly not been disspelled, even after the media backed off the story-at-all-costs tactics in the wake of Princess Diana's death.

The scandal at the News of the World -- where the royals joined other celebrity targets on phone-hacking lists -- made it abundantly clear that the media was still engaging in questionable practices. That was reinforced by a former Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie (above). He told the inquiry that during the 1980s, privacy was not a major concern and that if a proposed story "sounded right, it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in."

For the vast majority of media, that's not an acceptable course of action these days. But neither is hacking phones to get at a story, or uncovering stolen photos from a memory stick.

It happened. Which is reason enough for a Leveson inquiry -- a little castor oil can't hurt.

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