Harry's shooting from the lip a warning to all

It's the newest "gotcha" media moment. Prince Harry is the victim; News Of The World in London the most recent perpetrator. It happens something like this. Journalists come across a previously undisclosed film, audio recording or email where someone makes a private comment and give it wide coverage. The originator of the utterance is then required to apologise for having upset individuals who never would have learnt of the offending comment without the media's intervention.

We have all come to expect that, apart from the Queen, members of the royal family will be indiscreet. In so far as Prince William and Prince Harry are concerned, this seems to be part of the insouciance that goes with the position. On Sunday, News Of The World published part of a private video filmed in 2006 when Harry was an officer in the British Army. The third in line to the throne described a Pakistani officer serving with the British forces as "our little Paki friend". In a separate incident, Harry referred to another officer, who was in camouflage gear, as looking "like a raghead". He also found time to mock his grandmother, Elizabeth II.

News Of The World reported that, following his comments, Harry "stood accused of racism". It said his remarks were sick and had upset British Muslims. St James's Palace apologised for the recording and said Harry understood how offensive the terms could be. But the palace added the words were used without malice and were directed at his colleagues.

The apology had little effect. The British Equality and Human Rights Commission and a Muslim youth organisation, the Ramadhan Foundation, condemned Harry. Soon prominent politicians joined in the criticism - including the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

If they run to form, it should not be long before various Christian clergymen and women join in the collective breast-beating to apologise for any offence given or taken. Nowadays it is acceptable to depict George Bush or Tony Blair or John Howard as Hitler-loving Nazis, but not to use such words as "Paki" or "raghead" - even among consenting adults in private.

The distinction between private and public language has been blurred for some time, primarily because of technological developments. Once voices could be recorded, the spoken word came to have a degree of permanence previously only found in the written word. This has become all pervasive with mobile phones and when anyone with such a device can take films and record conversations.

This is not a matter where individual will has been overwhelmed by impersonal technology. In his address to the National Press Club last August, the former High Court chief justice Murray Gleeson reflected that he had written a judgment a few years ago in which he declared certain things were self-evidently private. Gleeson said he was "not sure about that any more" and reflected: "I used to think that having a telephone conversation was normally private. But you can't walk down the street without hearing a number of telephone conversations, some of them with people speaking loudly."

Gleeson predicted the changes that are taking place concerning the concept of privacy will have to be addressed by Parliament and the courts. This was evident that same month last year when the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, launched the Australian Law Reform Commission's report, For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law And Practice . He committed Labor to manage Australia's privacy laws "to reflect the contemporary era, its aspirations and demands".

Speaking at the launch, the commission's president, David Weisbrot, said Australians care about privacy, especially with advances in information and communications technology. He said they also understand the need to balance privacy with considerations of public benefit and security. Getting the balance as correct as possible will pose a challenge to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and his colleagues.

Governments are capable of managing their own privacy regulations and overseeing the requirements that should cover both private industry and the public sector. Yet there are limits to what they can do to protect personal privacy from those who obtain access to what individuals have written or said. Here a degree of self-regulation is required.

Figures in public life, like Prince Harry, should be aware that it is unwise to put anything into writing (including electronic communications) if the release of such material would cause embarrassment or even disquiet. This has been a precautionary fact of life for some time. The rule should now also apply to any comment that could be filmed and/or recorded and might cause problems for oneself or offence to others.

Harry committed an error of judgment when he appeared in public four years ago dressed in a German Army World War II uniform replete with Nazi swastika. He and his advisers should have known better. On this occasion, Harry may be surprised that what were obviously innocent comments were misunderstood. It is not as if, on this occasion, the words "Paki" and "raghead" were used as terms of abuse. But, once again, he should have known better than to be recorded saying anything that might lead to criticism, however unwarranted.

The fact is that public figures no longer have a private life - irrespective of the privacy laws that apply. They should expect that the journalists who break their privacy will be among the loudest in regretting the personal hurt which their own reports have caused.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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