09/20/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

The Royal Peep Show

Just a couple of weeks after the 15th anniversary of Princess Diana's gruesome death in Paris, the French edition of Closer magazine splashed topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge and future Queen of England across its cover, with a five-page lascivious spread inside. The official reaction was swift and decisive. The Palace first reprimanded, then sued. Welcome to the 21st Century debate over newsworthiness.

Here we are, once again, facing age-old, apparently unanswerable questions about when our public thirst for private images and information will be quenched, who should police mob morality and how far the right of free press should extend. In more general terms--just because we can, should we?

The quotidian individual reaction to a press intrusion of such magnitude commonly comes in two waves. The first is indignant disgust and hasty judgment—“How could they? And shame on whoever buys it!” The second rush is curiosity and capitulation—“Oh, let me see. Just one peek.” At root are powerful twin human impulses: to be outraged and to look. It’s a tangle of self-loathing masked as righteousness interwoven with morbid curiosity.

Since I am employed as a journalist, I dispensed with the first and went straight to the second—hunting online to see the pictures, to marvel at how normal the royal couple appears to be. There Kate was, tenderly massaging sun lotion on Wills’ back… wait, is that Kate sneaking a cigarette? Wow, no apparent boob job? Gosh, the future king and queen relax just like me!
Then comes a form of public group therapy and mild introspection delivered via talking heads who seek to contextualize the incident. “Why do we care? When will it end? What’s next—snuff films on prime time?” This discussion eventually peters out as the news cycle rushes on to the next thrill.

Incidentally, a day prior to the publication of Kate’s nipples, on September 13, the Los Angeles Times ran on its cover a photograph of the mortally wounded U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, which prompted furious and spirited reader response, mostly condemning the paper’s news judgment or lack thereof.

Two days prior to that in Los Angeles, on September 11, live TV footage aired of a police chase that ended in a gun battle and subsequent violent shooting of a murder and carjacking suspect. That the suspect didn’t die on camera is beside the point since the footage streamed in real time.

And in between, on September 12, a more participatory, frenzied, and dare I say it, amusing, police pursuit unfolded across Los Angeles. Four bank robbery suspects on the lam threw in a twist—as the cat and mouse hunt raged through downtown L.A., the suspects began tossing money from the vehicle, prompting a mob frenzy eerily reminiscent of the mother of all TV chases, O.J. Simpson’s 1994 Bronco run. Bystanders cheered and waved in glee while the scene unfolded on morning television.

Televised police chases have become woven into our DNA in much the same way the expectation has spread that we are entitled to an increasingly more intimate zoom lens view into the lives of those we celebrate, including heads of state such as William and Kate. Closer magazine has lived up to its name—they’ve brought commoners one step nearer royalty. Closer’s editor was quick with the expected, knee-jerk defense, arguing the images of Kate Middleton and Prince William were obtained lawfully, from a public area, and that they are “beautiful” and “not shocking.”

Not surprisingly, the Royal Family retorted with heavy condemnation, invoking the memory of William’s mother, saying the incident is “reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi” during Princess Diana’s lifetime. The Palace followed by filing a lawsuit, though one is left to wonder just what can or is to be recouped in doing so—Kate’s modesty, our collective virtue, journalistic restraint?

In what seemed a limp-wristed show of solidarity with The Firm, a French court granted William and Kate’s petition, issuing an injunction four days after the pictures were unleashed, barring further publication of them. But with the photos flooding the internet, and now with Italian, Irish, Swedish and Danish magazines republishing the images, the genie has left the proverbial bottle; we as a society have already walked through a door marked “Private,” into a room with no easy escape route.

The allure and thrill of the unknown ending in an over-scripted world and the visceral encounter with the unaltered has left us drunk and horny on communal media peep shows.

And to all that I ask, as hungrily and curiously as everyone, also with a lingering sense of unease—what next?

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.