ALBANY, N.Y. You thought the controversy over those topless photos of Kate Middleton was over? Not so fast, folks. In a world overrun with conflict and distress, we should savor the luxury of being able to enjoy a hullabaloo as superficial as this one.
The Duchess of Cambridge is a pretty young woman, of course, and she is married to a man named William who will someday be the king of England - a job focused entirely on matters superficial. So these photos have to do with what William and Kate are all about as far as the public is concerned: appearance and image, which the royal highnesses, as they're called, earnestly wish to control.
For commoners, this affair presents an extraordinary opportunity to lay aside such matters as the threat of a nuclear- armed Iran or the economic collapse of entire European nations. We can weigh instead whether famous and attractive young people who take off their clothes outdoors are injured when somebody snaps a photo of them from afar and sells it to magazines that specialize in publishing photos of people who look a lot better than we do undressed.
We should be heartened, then, at the revival of the controversy since, at the end of last week, a Danish magazine - a typical place for trouble to be stirred up, you know - published a photo that purports to show the duchess not just topless, but buck naked.
I say "purports" because I poked around online and found a digital version of that Danish magazine, Se Og Hor, which means "See and Hear," but the photo was so blurry that I couldn't, in fact, see if I was viewing the future queen sans tout. " Bundlos Bommert!" declared Se Og Hor. Danish is such an expressive language. I'll let you imagine what that means rather than translate it literally.
If you've followed this controversy till now, you know that the royal family sued a French magazine that published the topless photos and won an injunction that included an order that the editor turn over the photos. How quaint! In the digital age, that's a bit like brushing sand off a towel on the beach. Those images, transmitted and viewed millions of times already, will be part of what Kate's grammar school teacher might have called her permanent record. This is not the royal family's only recent brush with unclothed disclosure. Last year photos were published of Kate's younger sister, Pippa, skinny-dipping off a motor boat in Ibiza. Kate's brother- in- law, Prince Harry, was photographed naked while playing strip billiards in Las Vegas last month. And even Prince Philip, 91, got into the act: The queen's consort exposed more than he intended while wearing a kilt to the Highland Games a couple of weeks back.
I don't mean to sound unsympathetic to the House of Windsor. It must be creepy to think that no matter where you are, somebody is watching you, trying to snap a photo, the more embarrassing the better. The royals wind up pinning their hopes for privacy on the considered judgment of thoughtful journalists, a slender queue in the U.K.
Unsurprisingly, none of the leading publications in Britain or the U.S. has published any of the unclad Windsors. British publications risk being barred from palace coverage if they annoy the royals; as for us, it's just not our cup of tea, as they would say over there.
This has nothing to do with the law. In New York, where this newspaper is published, the Legislature has never enacted a privacy law. But our ethical code urges us to minimize the harm our reporting may cause. Sometimes truth-telling can hurt, but we hope that by displaying the respect a civil society usually expects we can limit the negative impact. Even the most public of story subjects deserve a level of privacy. As they hung out on the balcony of a 19th- century hunting lodge in France, William and Kate shouldn't have had to worry about a camera a mile away. Whether a young woman wants to sunbathe topless in the 21st century is of less consequence than the ridiculous fixation on celebrity that propels paparazzi into competition for such photos.
After all, there's no important truth to be unveiled by trailing members of the royal family at play. Indeed, a BBC correspondent got into trouble last week for revealing that the queen in casual conversation had offered an opinion on a political matter, which she is not supposed to possess. Britain's constitutional system demands that royals remain irrelevant in any but the most superficial matters, and the media coverage of them assures that they will be.
And who are the comparable American royals? Brad and Angelina, surely. The Kardashians, astonishingly. Kristen, Robert, one of the Katies and a Katy.
It's only in what doesn't matter that the Middletons and Windsors and their ilk are pushed front and center. It's a glass castle not many of us would wish to occupy.
Rex Smith is editor of the Albany Times Union.