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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links