How the tabloids got it wrong

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IT WAS A sensational acquittal. After vehemently arguing the case against the Prince of Wales, then ridiculing his defence, the advocates of Fleet Street retired to await the public's verdict. Their case was overwhelmingly rejected.

The royal defendant faced a catch-all charge of being 'unfit to rule', embracing his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, and a string of other offences committed through his participation in the television documentary Charles, the Private Man, the Public Role.

Before Wednesday, when the screening of Jonathan Dimbleby's 2 1/2 -hour film gave the Prince the opportunity to put his defence, most of the tabloids' coverage had come from leaks. Leading the criticism from the beginning of the week was the Daily Mail. In a vitriolic leading article on Charles's vision of leading Britain as a defender of all faiths, it said 'Puzzled of Highgrove might have been better advised to keep his shifting and multifarious concerns rather more to himself'.

On Tuesday, Anthony Holden, a royal biographer, wrote in a Mail commentary: 'The Prince of Wales appears to be spinning gently out of control, wreaking untold damage to the monarchy in the process.'

On Wednesday, the Daily Mirror devoted its entire front page to a comment attacking the Prince's adultery. Even the Daily Express, which had been sympathetic, questioned the wisdom of taking part.

On Thursday morning the tabloids were forthright in their reaction to the programme. The Mail, under the headline 'Another Error of Judgment', drew an analogy between the Prince's participation and reports that he had steered a Queen's Flight jet into a bog by overshooting the runway.

The Sun told how readers jammed its switchboard because 'they did not want an adulterer on the throne'. Today denounced Charles as the 'Prince of Whines'. The Mirror, under the banner headline 'Not fit to reign', reported that its telephone poll revealed that 32 per cent thought the Prince should not accede to the throne. But therein lay the seeds of doubt. What the Mirror poll also showed was that a majority of its readers - 61 per cent - thought that the Prince was fit to rule, and 54 per cent thought him right to admit an affair on television.

They were not the only ones. GMTV, the breakfast television station, polled 80,000 of its viewers and found 85 per cent felt Charles would be a suitable king. A Teletext poll found 77 per cent backed him.

The Sun's readers seemed to have performed a perfect U- turn. On Friday, 36 hours after reporting that anti-Charles callers had jammed its switchboard, the paper claimed that the Prince was 'walking on air' after 'thousands of Sun readers flooded our hotline with calls of support'.

So what had happened? Had Fleet Street, which considers itself a barometer of public opinion, got it wrong?

The editor of a national broadsheet said: 'The tabloid press has lashed itself into a feverish lather about the Prince of Wales because these days a feverish lather is its only mode of speaking to its readers. The tabloids have gone, as they themselves might say of the Prince, more than slightly bonkers. Prince v Princess is a terrific story but not if you play it down the middle. Sides must be taken. The fact that they all chose the same side shows how lunacy can affect commercial judgment - and how enclosed inside a media bubble of royal 'experts' and 'insiders' they are. Television can cut through all this crap, which is why Charles was wise to use it.'

Derek Jameson, ex-editor of three national tabloids, and now a radio broadcaster, said Charles had given Fleet Street a rude awakening. 'They had been led by their noses to believe that people were very much against Charles and the opposite turned out to be true.'

Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Mirror, and a media pundit, said that shades of pro-Diana bias in some of the coverage could be attributed to the lingering belief that the Prince was responsible for his wife's public retirement.

However, he believes grudge is only a partial explanation. 'This is one occasion on which I think the press is reflecting the underlying truth of the situation, which is that Charles is a dodgy prospect as King.'

This weekend, two editors who pursued the anti-Charles line all week said that this was their only motive. Richard Stott of Today said: 'We took that line because we thought it was the right one to take.' Colin Myler, his opposite number at the Mirror, said: 'We took the view we did because we felt we were right. If you look at every commentator, I cannot think of anyone who thought Charles was right take part in this programme.'

But the public, in theory the people who matter on constitution issues, appeared to take a different view? 'No,' said Stott. 'What the polls showed is that there is a large proportion of people who still have doubts about the suitability of this man to be King.'

Holden, regarded as having a close insight into the Prince's current thinking, despite not having met him for nearly 10 years, admitted that the results showed support, but cautioned against seeing them as reflecting more than short-term sympathy.

'Long-term, what people will remember is the linkage between the admission of adultery and the hint that he would like to sever links with the Anglican church,' he said.

Greenslade took up the same point. 'This was a long free advert, and it worked, at least in the initial stage, but I would be surprised if you don't find the public coming more into line with the tabloid's cynicism within a very short time.'

Neal Ascherson, page 18