Andreas Whittam Smith: We have a duty to scrutinise the monarchy, not the tittle-tattle

I decided that the paper would not cover the Royals unless the story had solid news value

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When The Independent was launched in 1986, the monarchy was going through one of its periodic bad patches. Before that, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Royal Family had been successfully presented as a model family. The Windsors even managed to appear as much conventionally middle class as royal. There were photographs of them enjoying picnics and barbecues together. After the abdication crisis of 1936 and then the Second World War, when many old landmarks disappeared, they had found their role. They represented stability.

This was wishful thinking, for no family can convey an impression of perfection for very long. In 1976, the separation of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon was announced. This was the first time in the 20th century that the failure of the marriage of one of the core members of the Royal Family had occurred. In terms of families up and down the Kingdom, this was nothing remarkable at all. But for it to happen to the Queen's sister, that was a shock. To stop the rot, so to speak, Princess Margaret would have had to retire to a nunnery, or at least to have lived a private and unremarkable life.

On the contrary, no attempt was made to hide the 45-year-old Princess's relationship with a 28-year old trainee landscape gardener, Roddy Llewellyn. The liaison provoked intense press interest. Their meetings and holidays together were reported. As the Mirror put it, "There is no mystique about Mustique. Every time she holidays there with Roddy, it is in the full public glare." Indeed, the relationship became a bit of a national joke, a running gag. "Roddy for PM" T-shirts went on sale.

From now onwards, the dominant theme of newspaper coverage was royal misbehaviour rather than duller seeming official duties. In these circumstances, what approach should the new Independent take? The only difference at the time between the so-called quality and the popular press was that the upmarket titles carried the same gossip in a more restrained way.

That seemed to me, as editor, an unappealing course. What would be the point of starting a new newspaper if one unthinkingly followed every Fleet Street convention? I saw the monarch, plus the heir to the throne and perhaps also the third in the line of succession, as persons of significance, whereas I considered the rest of the Royal Family as being of no interest whatever. What do Edward and Sophie do next: who cares? I decided, therefore, that the paper would give no coverage whatever to the Royal Family unless the story had solid news value.

I cannot say that my colleagues firmly supported me in this policy; they longed to do just a little bit of royal gossip. And one reader wittily reprimanded me by writing a letter for publication that read as follows: "Dear Sir, Your readers might like to know that..." and there then followed a choice bit of royal news. The correspondent signed off without further comment.

The following year, the bad patch reached its worst point. Prince Edward, who, after three years at Cambridge and a short stint with the Royal Marines, had gone into the entertainment business, promoted the idea that a royal version should be made of the slapstick series, It's a Knockout. It would be called It's a Royal Knockout and was screened in June 1987. Three of the Queen's children took part, Anne, Edward and Andrew, with assorted celebrities. It turned out to be an embarrassment to all concerned.

Since then, the Royal Family has steadily recovered its poise, except for a sharp break in 1997 when the Queen and her advisers badly underestimated the emotion aroused by the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales as a result of a car crash in Paris. The Queen's silence, her refusal to return to London from holiday at Balmoral and the failure to fly the royal flags at half-mast as a sign of mourning were all widely criticised. As news goes, that was as solid as one could wish for, and The Independent gave those events full coverage. A message displayed outside Buckingham Palace read: "Your Majesty, Please Look and Learn."

What she would have seen was a mass of flowers, messages and lighted candles placed at every place associated with the late Princess's life. She finally returned, went to stand for a moment at the Princess's coffin lying in St James's Palace and at last saw the many expressions of grief. Then the Queen broadcast live on the Six O'Clock news from Buckingham Palace. It was a dignified, well-judged performance that admitted that there were "lessons to be learnt" from the Princess's life and from the "extraordinary and moving reaction to her death".

As a result of the Diana episode, republican sentiments received a more sympathetic hearing than would normally be the case. At least they did among the small number of people who are interested in constitutional questions. The great British public remains indifferent to such speculations. Indeed, the vast outpourings of affection for the Queen that the next few days of Jubilee celebrations are likely to reveal will surely show that the country continues to be deeply royalist in its own fashion.

Fleet Street's first instinct, too, is pro-monarchy. The Independent has continued to go its own way. But we live at a time when all institutions are subject to continuing appraisal, and the press won't hold back if it sees something to attack. The Queen's successors will be tested. The key question will be whether future monarchs are worthy of respect. With the office of head of state passing by inheritance, this is far from guaranteed. The Queen herself is admired for having conscientiously performed her duties for the enormous span of 60 years. This commitment goes back to an occasion not 60 years ago, but 65. When she was touring South Africa with her parents in 1947, she made this promise on her 21st birthday: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."

The word "imperial" denotes an era that has passed. Otherwise, the words are fine and good and true.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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