The Princes, the press and Royal privacy rows
Media LeadersRaymond Snoddy observes the most recent decline of deference when reporting on the Royals as the BBC airs the first of a new two-part documentary.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have provided some entertaining distraction with his inability to keep his notes under control and, as a result enlightening the Confederation of British Industry about his thoughts on Peppa Pig World.
But bubbling away not far from the surface is what could turn into one of the most bitter battles between Buckingham Palace and the media in decades.
It hasn’t yet become the equivalent of the Queen’s “Annus Horribilis” in 1992 when three Royal marriages moved towards divorce, including that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, topped by the fire at Windsor Castle.
Yet, to put it mildly, there are a number of running stories at the moment that shine a sometimes, unflattering light, on the behaviour of members of the House of Windsor.
Coming more or less at the same time, there are stories alleging that the Royal Princes William and Harry have been involved, though courtiers, in briefing against each other to the press, plus renewed attacks on the activities of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.
The Sun, for instance suggested “Meg should stop milking it” as she sucked from a baby’s bottle on US television to promote a children’s book.
In an echo of the scandal of Conservative donors being offered peerages, there have been the embarrassing details from the Sunday Times of how senior aides to Prince Charles had fixed an honour for a Saudi billionaire in return for hefty donations to the charitable funds of the heir to the throne.
The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, is rarely out of the headlines over the Epstein affair and his name is likely to feature again as the Ghislaine trial opens in New York.
There is even possible legal action by the Queen to prevent publication of the will of her late husband the Duke of Edinburgh.
Is this about the desire for privacy for privacy’s sake, or the issue of the magnificence of what he left, or even whom he left it to?
With the next series of The Crown on the way, there could be Royal libel actions- or more probably the threat of them – while Prince Harry is still claiming £200,000 in damages over historic phone hacking scandals.
The collection of real, and potential, embarrassments are largely unrelated, but they still add-up to one hell-of-a news list. The Royal family is a big story again, far beyond the celebration of marriages, births and deaths.
The nature of the Royal correspondent role has clearly changed from the days when coverage amounted to little more than the obsequious chronicling of Royals cutting the opening ribbons to new buildings.
Suddenly, Royal correspondents are back at the heart of the action.
A number of trends are clearly visible - in society, the Monarchy and the media.
The decline of deference has accelerated and in return, the old Royal adage – never explain and never complain- has long since been ditched in favour of: 'our libel lawyers will be in touch'.
After the inevitable lull and period of media self-reflection following the tragic death of Princess Diana and the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal, the Royals are once again the target and, for a new generation of journalists the gloves are off.
The highlight of the current running battle between the Palace and the media is The Princes and the Press - a two-part documentary by the ubiquitous Amol Rajan, a self-proclaimed Republican, which aired on the BBC earlier this week.
Even before the first programme was broadcast it was denounced by the Palace for giving credibility “to overblown and unfounded claims” from anonymous sources.
This was combined with a Palace threat that all co-operation with the BBC could be withdrawn and that lawyers would examine every frame with a view to complaining to Ofcom if any rule was broken.
According to The Sun the threat has immediately been carried out with the screening of William and Kate's charity carol service moved from the BBC to ITV.
The Palace was also apparently livid that they were not allowed to see a copy of the programme in advance, demonstrating once again that they have a fragile grasp of how the media works.
The then chairman of the BBC, Lord Hussey was not even told in advance of what has now become the notorious Princess Diana Panorama interview because of his close links to the Palace.
It is certainly courageous, if not foolhardy, for the BBC to broadcast such a programme so soon after the exposure of the deceit at the heart of the Diana interview and Martin Bashir’s later return to the BBC with a promotion.
Despite the rows and threats the first Princes and the Press programme will hardly pull down the walls protecting the House of Windsor.
Royal reporters past and present were interviewed – the two parter is based on 80 hours of interviews with those who were supposed to be in the know.
In truth it is difficult to tell because, unsurprisingly, no-one was prepared to give even the most gentle of hints as to their sources. That there has been some sort of rift between the Princes William and Harry, and possibly their wives, seems likely at the very least.
Beyond that, the suggestion, denounced as “tittle-tattle” by the Palace is that, with or without formal permission, courtiers from various Royal households were involved in briefing against each other.
By way of conclusion, the programme noted elliptically: “When people who aren’t meant to talk start talking you have got a problem.”
Historically the central dynamic at work in the relations between the Royals and the media used to be The Game.
This was the unspoken pact that in return for favourable coverage you got access and stories. Meghan Markle refused to play the game and that is the main reason why disgruntled hacks turned on her, rather than conscious or unconscious racism.
After all, the media was overwhelmingly supportive of Markle in the early days and saw her arrival in the Royal family as a much-needed breath of fresh air.
If the first part of Princes and the Press was hardly incendiary the second, dealing with the events of the past three years is likely to be more explosive.
In the meantime, I would suggest that rather like Boris Johnson in Downing Street the Royals need much more high calibre professional help – not least in dealing with both presentation and relations with the media who are not going to go away.