The weekend the nation fell for Kate’s boobs

Andrew Marr and guests discuss the weekend's newspapers

For many, the glorious glow of the Olympics and Paralympics came to an abrupt end this weekend, as unfathomable amounts of copy and airtime  filled with stories of a Duchess’ breasts and grubby publishers trying to make a quick buck.

Stories of the paparazzi topless shots of Kate Middleton swept across the media, propelled by a torrent of anger, self-righteousness and, of course, titillation.

Never mind that lives were under threat from protesting Muslims in the Middle East, or, closer to home, that the insidious and widespread corruption surrounding the Hillsborough disaster was finally being laid bare after 23 years.

There’s no accounting for what people are drawn too, a situation wryly noted by Andrew Marr and guests on his BBC news show yesterday by way of an apology for leading on the boobs.

“You’ve got on the one hand, Kate being shot at by the cameras, and on the other hand, [Prince] Harry being shot at [in Afghanistan] by real ‘things’, noted The Times’ Philip Colins. “It’s remarkable that the [topless] pictures story is knocking the other one out in most cases.”

Time magazine’s Catherine Mayer was even more animated: “This makes me really quite cross that there’s so much space devoted to these stories… It’s such a phoney debate… the really important debate about press freedoms that the Leveson inquiry has sought to look into, has been hijacked by this bizarre notion of what is important to print.”

For Media Week, of particular interest is how industry tensions of the last few days have called into question the relationships, and the amount of power ceded, among publishers who have extended brands through licensing agreements and joint ventures.

First Bauer Media and then Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell were forced to urgently review their contractual rights, having discovered their brands have published the topless pictures through international partnerships.

Speaking to Media Week, Bauer’s Paul Keenan admitted to being “very disappointed” about the actions of Closer France, before later urging his publishing partner, Mondadori, to remove the photos from their website; which it duly did.

In a statement with strong echoes of the one made by Bauer Media, Northern & Shell sought to distance itself from the publication of the topless photos in the Irish Daily Star, a title it co-owns with INM.

Desmond is chairman of the venture, Independent Star, which publishes the newspaper, but admits to having “no editorial control” over the Irish Daily Star. The decision to run the photos falls on the shoulders of editor, Mike O’Kane, whose attempts to justify it as “a service to our readers” will no doubt haunt him for his remaining working days.

His position at the Independent Star is surely untenable. The jury is out on whether he ends up taking down the entire Irish Daily Star and its 80-strong team; Desmond has vowed to take “immediate action to close down the joint venture”.

I have suggested events of last year as one possible canary in the coal mine for staff on the daily, when the publishing group was forced to close its weekend Irish Daily Star Sunday amid tough trading conditions. The newspaper has now been replaced on the shelves by the UK edition of the Daily Star Sunday.

David Hayes, managing director of MEC Ireland, is among those surprised by O’Kane’s career suicidal tendencies. He tells me the Irish Daily Star is generally perceived in the marketplace to be “the thinking man’s redtop”.

Unlike its UK namesake or News International’s domestic rival The Sun, the newspaper does not carry topless photos of women on page three, and identifies its core audience as C1C2 – as opposed to Ds and Es.

Commercially the Irish Daily Star, like the rest of the press, has been feeling the pressures of the retreating advertising market. The once highly lucrative advertising spend around the construction industry, for example, has all but disappeared since the recession. Total press spend among the tabloids in Ireland is said to have plummeted by around 50% since 2008.

For his part, 61-year-old Desmond is known to take a very hands-on approach to the business he inherited when he acquired Express Newspapers in 2000. The departure of its managing director and a founding executive, Paul Cooke, last year is attributed in no small part to his strained relationship with N&S’s irascible leader.

Yet, for all its challenges, the Irish Daily Star and the JV which has published it since 1987, remains a profitable business (pre-tax profit of €4.3m in 2010, down 11.4%). Any attempts to close the Dublin operation,which is reported to have a branding licence with N&S running until 2037, is likely to be fought by joint shareholder INM.

Much will rest on what is stipulated in the publishing contract between the two companies. And as Duncan Lamont, a partner at media law specialist Charles Russell tells me, this could get complicated.

While publishing contracts are good at protecting themselves from the bad behaviour of celebrity endorsers, they have to be careful not to be seen to be depriving editors of the right to edit.

Many contracts will protect the reputation of ‘brands’, but this is a little different from a normal ‘morality clause’.

For example, will there in time be a ruling by the Irish regulator over the Kate photos in the Irish Daily Star? If there is, and it finds in favour of the paper, then Desmond might find withdrawing the Daily Star brand from Ireland mid-contract, and after 25 years in circulation, something easier said than done.

One supporter of Desmond’s attempts to kneecap the Irish Daily Star is fellow media magnate Evgeny Lebedev, whose family bought The Independent from INM in 2010.

“Respect Richard Desmond for ditching Irish Daily Star over topless Kate pics,” he tweeted. “Good on you Richard.”

Such vocal support for a decision that threatens to put so many jobs on the line after one bad day in the office should provide food for thought for many in Northcliffe House too.

[View the story "Publishing contracts under pressure" on Storify]