Prince Charles: The press is cantankerous, cynical and essential

From an address by the Prince of Wales in St Bride's, Fleet Street, on the 300th anniversary of the national daily press
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The Independent Online

This service will, I suspect, create ironies for some of us – and perhaps not least for St Bride's itself. For when The Daily Courant was launched in 1702, its main competition was held not to be that of other forms of the then media – books and pamphlets – but the power of the sermon. Not newspaper vs newspaper, but press vs pulpit. I am glad you are both still here 300 years on, as strong and as robust as ever – and glad, too, that this church still stands as a wonderful haven in which we can come together today to celebrate three hundred years of newspapers, and of press freedom.

That St Bride's has such a special place in the soul of the British press is a testimony to the dedicated work of many newspapermen and women and many incumbents of the church over the generations. There is no doubt also an irony inherent in my presence here today. After all, we both represent longstanding institutions – mine admittedly rather older – and we have both over the centuries endured a degree of criticism and opprobrium.

I would make one more point about our two different institutions – that from time to time we are probably both a bit hard on each other, exaggerating the downsides and ignoring the good points in each.

I want to do my best to redress the balance – and to pay tribute to the very real good that newspapers and magazines do – pro bono publico.

Yes, from time to time you get things wrong: everyone does. But most of the time you are seeking to keep the public informed about developments in society, to scrutinise those who hold or seek positions of influence, to uncover wrongdoing at a national level, in business or in local communities, to prick the pomposity of the overbearing, and – a point sometimes forgotten – to entertain us.

There is, of course, a careful balance to be struck in all this. For three centuries, the press has in that process been awkward, cantankerous, cynical, bloody-minded, at times intrusive, at times inaccurate and at times deeply unfair and harmful to individuals and to institutions. However, there is a great deal in what Thomas Jefferson said: those faults are the "reality of our liberty", and the underpinning of a just balance in our society. Virtues and vices rolled into one, and long may it be so.

For those of you expecting a large "but" at the end of that paragraph, there is indeed one coming – though you will have to wait a moment for it. Before I reach it, I do want – as I have done in the past – to underline my own very real gratitude and, indeed, surprise for the manner in which all newspapers have sought to give my two sons – William and Harry – as much privacy as is possible in their position.

And, now, very briefly, to the "but" – which is this. Is it not the case that in the legitimate pursuit of news, in the desire to make information available to the public, in the desire to hold public bodies and public figures to account, and in its desire to entertain, the media in all its forms sometimes becomes too cynical, too ready to assume the worst, and to construct the general out of the particular? And is not the result that important parts of British life have become damaged because of the failings not of the institutions themselves, but of individuals within them? Of course, scrutiny and exposure of wrongdoing are important. But so is the good that we so often overlook and take for granted.

Travelling abroad, I see a very different view of Britain from that I sometimes see here: their view is of a vibrant, energetic, innovative and, yes, still proud and civilised land with timeless values rooted in our rich history. Perhaps all of us need at the time of this coincidence of anniversaries – your 300th and the Queen's 50th – to wonder what more each of us can do to correct the genuine ills in our society and create a climate which leads to ever more of us feeling that Britain is a great country to which we can give our love and loyalty.