Johann Hari: Would you trade your privacy for a palace?

Monarchists should recognise that their institution has become too cruel to sustain
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It's hunting season again - and, once more, the prey are the Windsor family and their wannabe wives. On Diana Spencer's last holiday before the paparazzi chased her at 65mph into a wall, she told reporters: "My boys are urging me to leave the country. They say it's the only way [to escape these people] ... William is stressed, William gets really freaked out." Today, the same stalked boy is saying he wants "more than anything" for the woman in his life "to be left alone" by the omnipresent battalion of predator-photographers that camp outside her house and follow her everywhere, every day. There is only one way to get your wish, William.

To be a monarchist today, you have to be a sadist. I don't say this as a cheap insult, but as a bleak observation of reality. You have to believe that in order for Britain to have an inherited ceremonial bauble as head of state, it is worth sacrificing the privacy, sanity and sometimes even the lives of one particular family who didn't volunteer for the task and clearly don't want it. You offer up the Windsors - and anyone they fall in love with - as red meat to be consumed to keep your institution going. The Windsor family has long referred to the sacrifices they are forced to make as "feeding the beast". The beast is becoming more carnivorous than ever.

Look at William Windsor's life, and how it has been marketed by the monarchists, handing him over to people he detests. At the age of 14, he had his first cover of Time magazine, asking: "Can this boy save the monarchy?" Diana said: "He hates the press even more than I did when I first got into this family. He sees them as the enemy." She told Jennie Bond, the BBC's royalty correspondent, that William comforted her by telling her she was "very lucky to be able to give up the HRH".

But he was not allowed a choice. The monarchists forced him to stay, to pose, to keep selling himself. While William was on holiday in the South of France with his mother in 1996, they stayed in a villa which could be seen from woods about 200 yards away - so the press set up their long-range lenses there. William became so determined not to give them anything at all that he refused to leave the villa during daylight hours. After several days of this, the holiday was cut short and they returned to London. It was a typical vignette in a life stripped of privacy.

He believes this kind of stalking "murdered" his mother - and now he is forced to watch his girlfriend endure eerily similar treatment. When Diana became engaged to Charles Windsor, his mother, Elizabeth Windsor, summoned Fleet Street editors to Buckingham Palace to lecture them on why the non-stop harassment of her had to stop.

The News of the World editor at the time, Barry Askew, asked why, if the princess wanted privacy, she didn't send servants to do some of her shopping. Elizabeth, astonished that she was not commanding the respect she expected, snapped back: "That was a pompous remark, Mr Askew." This was the moment that the last vestige of British feudalism died.

You would think nobody would ever again be so naïve as to expect the old deference from people whose sole interest was to make hard cash. Yet Kate Middleton's family have tried the same, pleading for her to be left alone - as though the paps will surrender those £10,000 cheques out of sympathy. So many of the old mistakes are being repeated again in the endless misery-go-round of monarchy. Just as Charles was pressured to marry Diana, so there are reports William is being told by the Palace "to get engaged in the next year". Diana confided years later that as she traipsed up the aisle in Westminster Abbey, watched by a billion people, she wanted to turn around and run. Who could blame Kate Middleton for feeling the same?

Of course, many people believe that the Windsors are handsomely compensated for these inconveniences, with lashings of cash, a slew of palaces and a life of privilege. But what kind of privilege is it when you can't step out of your front door? When you can't choose your own job, your religion, your sex life? When every conversation you have - on the phone, or with a friend - is up for auction, with newspapers offering thousands of pounds for the details? Would you trade your privacy for a palace?

All over the world, monarchies are melting under the burning pressure of a relentless global media market. In 2005, for example, Japan's Sayako Kuroda renounced her position as a princess because she couldn't take it any more. There is firm evidence William considered walking, although he has obviously been manipulated and bullied out of it now.

Clive James, a close friend of Diana's, once told me that "monarchy is no longer compatible with our 24/7 media market". And he's right. I believe strongly in all the old republican arguments - that it is absurd to have a hereditary monarch educated at Eton in the 21st century, and insulting to the British people to suggest we can't do better - but shouldn't humane monarchists recognise that their institution has become too cruel to sustain?

Some people have offered stricter privacy laws as a solution, and Charles Windsor's lawyers are reportedly preparing a test case to sue certain photographers stalking Middleton. I'm in favour of privacy laws, but I'm afraid it's foolish to think this will solve the problem when pictures of British royals fetch a fortune on the global market. Even if British newspapers were banned from printing harassment images, there would still be a vast market from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Even if a few photographers have been served with an Asbo, or even jailed, when there are such vast sums to be made, there will still be a pool of hundreds more prepared to keep on stalking.

There is only one way - over the long-term - to end this problem. It is to call for a dignified end to an institution that has morphed from being a snobbish anachronism into a media-driven torture device. Of course, if William abdicated tomorrow, the paparazzi would not immediately leave Kate alone. But over time, the couple would recede from the public mind, and their children would recede further, until eventually the Windsors would only feature as sometime-curios in the "Where are they now?" pages. You can choose this, William. Or you can choose a life of media torment.

But, better still, we can choose for you. We need a new republican chant: Help the Windsor family. Abolish the monarchy.