Not in front of the children
Why is it only Royal offspring who get treated with kid gloves by the press?
Tuesday 26 September 2000
Broadsheet editors tend to get into verbal contortions when they try to justify running an essentially tabloid story. The
Sunday Times' first instalment of the book on Princess Diana, by her one-time private secretary, Patrick Jephson, actually needed little justification for two reasons. On a technical point, book serialisations do not come under the jurisdiction of the Press Complaints Commission. And, as regards reader interest, the authoritative nature of the narrative meant it gave much more of an insight than has often been the case into the daily round, prejudices and frailties of one of the most newsworthy figures of the last century.
Broadsheet editors tend to get into verbal contortions when they try to justify running an essentially tabloid story. The Sunday Times' first instalment of the book on Princess Diana, by her one-time private secretary, Patrick Jephson, actually needed little justification for two reasons. On a technical point, book serialisations do not come under the jurisdiction of the Press Complaints Commission. And, as regards reader interest, the authoritative nature of the narrative meant it gave much more of an insight than has often been the case into the daily round, prejudices and frailties of one of the most newsworthy figures of the last century.
Its central theme - that Diana was manipulative and unpredictable but had great charisma - hardly rates as a shock revelation. Nevertheless, it was a serialisation that would have been devoured by readers, and one that most newspapers would have happily carried. Sodiscount the Daily Mail's indignation under the headline "Trusted aide betrays Diana's secrets".
Of more concern is the pre-publication statement by the Sunday Times editor, John Witherow. Asked whether Princes William and Harry would be upset by the book, Mr Witherow said: "Patrick was very conscious of not upsetting the Princess's children. I can understand why the Palace are worried, but they have nothing to fear."
This is an extraordinary statement, because Mr Witherow is affecting to know better than the Palace, the Queen and Prince Charles and better than the princes themselves about what might upset them. For a joint statement from the Queen and Prince Charles before the Sunday Times serialisation said: "The Queen and the Prince of Wales deeply deplore Mr Jephson's decision to proceed with the publication of his book.
"Whatever its possible content, it is likely to arouse fresh speculation about the life of the Princess which can only be upsetting to the feelings of Prince William and Prince Harry and to the Princess's family."
But there is a more radical question to be asked than the predictable one of "will it upset the princes?" That question is "does it matter if they are upset?". At first sight such a question is unfeeling and insensitive. But what we have now is the ludicrous situation where sensitivity to the princes' feelings would mean never carrying anything at all about their late mother (and precious little about their father). Every newspaper knows it is not going to agree with that. Much better to say so, rather than claim to know the boys' feelings better than they do themselves.
Even more bizarre, and to my knowledge not commented upon, is the acceptance that only in the case of these two children does the "hurt-feelings" rule apply. No journalist likes to feel that he or she has hurt children. But it is impossible to report on adults without children being hurt. The late Paula Yates's oldest child no doubt reads papers and will have cringed at much of the coverage of her mother's death. Lord Falconer's kids can't be relishing the daily calls for his head. There are countless other examples that can be gleaned from the press every day of the week.
Hurting children is an unacknowledged, but all too real, daily side effect of journalism. Yet the only two children whose feelings editors continually express concern about (even if it is often a less-than-genuine concern) are Princes William and Harry. As it happens, the Press Complaints Commission does not actually require newspapers to make a special case of the two princes. The PCC director, Guy Black, says: "All that is asked is that newspapers apply the same rule to the princes as they do to other children. There has never been an added level of protection."
Of course, more column inches are devoted to the father and late mother of these boys than any other in the country. Yet, while newspapers go through the motions of not wanting to upset the princes, we rarely, if ever, worry about the effects that reporters, leader-writers and columnists have on the children of anyone else in the news. It is, if you like, a peculiar form of privilege.
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