LEADING ARTICLE : It's just showbiz

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WHAT CAN be going on? Buckingham Palace is reported to be suffering from shock and "sheer bewilderment". A courtier splutters: "One never treats the Queen in this manner." The columns of the Times and Daily Telegraph ring with concern for "the health of the monarchy and the nation". Has somebody thrown a stink bomb at Her Majesty? Spiked her food with LSD? Published compromising pictures of her? No, it's just her daughter-in- law giving an interview to Panorama. The Princess of Wales is not expected to offer her views on the Bosnian peace deal, the Scottish constitutional question or the Common Agricultural Policy. Almost for sure, she will talk about her ruined marriage and what she thinks of her in-laws. But that's showbiz. Nobody in showbiz now expects a private life nor even, it sometimes seems, particularly wants one. In this respect, the Royal Family is no different from the families of, say, Steve Davis, Michael Barrymore, Hugh Grant, Nick Faldo, Robert Kilroy-Silk and a host of soap stars.

There was a time when both the BBC and the monarchy remained aloof from show business. If anything, the Royals have moved faster than the BBC. Only a generation ago, film of the Duke of Edinburgh grilling sausages was enough to create a national sensation; now, we are not at all surprised to see the Royals on It's a Knockout. Both the Prince and Princess of Wales routinely use the tabloid newspapers to feed titbits about their private relationships to the public. The BBC, by contrast, continues to focus its news service dutifully on the Middle East, Bosnia, and the like, straying on to the tabloid agenda only when it is unavoidable because, say, a minister may be forced to resign.

The truth is that the BBC - or at least its news operation - has remained far more faithful to its historic role as a dignified part of national life than the monarchy has. The Royal Family, with startling speed, has already become a branch of the entertainment industry. And it probably had no alternative. At some stage in the 1960s, the Duke of Edinburgh calculated that the monarchy needed to be more accessible to television lest it wither away through national boredom and indifference. He unleashed a monster that could not be controlled; as almost everybody in the entertainment industry and politics now understands, the media will not tolerate half- measures. Bring any part of your private life into the public domain and you lay the whole of it open to scrutiny.

But dullness was probably a greater threat than scandal. The Queen Mother, to be sure, has not given an interview of any sort since 1923, and that was brief and uninformative. But grannies are not expected to be in tune with the times; they command affection simply for being very old. If the younger Royals were as aloof and as regal in the old-fashioned way as their parents and grandparents, would we really continue to tolerate them? Might we not be irritated even by the Queen herself if she were surrounded by apparently well-balanced, polite, dutiful children, leading blameless lives in successful marriages? Such a family would seem an intolerable reproach; intolerably smug, too, if the monarch was always issuing bromides about the sanctity of family life. Then, indeed, we might see a serious republican movement, shouting abuse at the Queen as she passed in her gilded carriage. As it is, there are calls for the monarchy to be less extravagant and to pay taxes like the rest of us, but there are no significant calls for its abolition. We may envy them their wealth but we would envy their happiness even more.

The paradox, then, is that, for all the protestations of the Palace and its high-minded supporters, the Princess's performance tomorrow will probably help to keep the show on the road. Many viewers will be able to rehearse the arguments against the monarchy and its role in the British constitution: that it perpetuates hierarchy and deference, that it legitimises an outdated patronage system, that ministers are allowed almost dictatorial powers in the name of the Crown. Many will tut-tut and lament the lost days of royal mystique. Almost everybody will acknowledge that this is a matter of no importance, that we have become a nation of childish voyeurs and that Panorama ought to be bringing us something more weighty. But in our heart of hearts, we know also that this is the show of the century and that we want it to run and run.