Smile, Wills, it's your turn now

The cameras focused on the princes last week. For Henry Porter it was a sign of terrible pressures to come
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OF ONE thing we were all persuaded last September: the media and the public's appetite for Diana, Princess of Wales, was responsible for her death. Whatever the actual position of the photographers in relation to the Mercedes on the night of 31 August, or the alcohol level in Henri Paul's blood, we agreed that it was our pursuit which sent her into the tunnel at such lethal velocity.

In the aftermath the newspapers didn't shrink from the responsibility. Lord Rothermere announced that his papers would no longer be buying pictures from the paparazzi, and every columnist from Lynda Lee-Potter to Lord Rees-Mogg expressed the media's guilt. The remorse may have been heartfelt, but let us be clear about this: the media didn't reform last year. It can't, because the public's appetite didn't die with Diana.

Six months after we dried our tears and the flowers were swept away from the instant shrines of grief, a 15- year-old lad went on holiday to Canada with his father and brother and the whole ghastly process began again. For the camera loves William as it loved his mother and it has anointed him as our next victim. Just this one snap, they said in Vancouver. After all, it's only natural that the British public should want to see how the lad is growing up. Nothing wrong in that, surely. And he's such a heartbreaker! Such a hunk!

Naturally, the members of royal press corps, a kind of licensed pack of groupies and stalkers, were on hand in Vancouver to reassure us in the trilling prose of their trade that this was all sanctioned and perfectly above board. But in doing so they also took care to stress that William is utterly as his mother was - Diana reborn. Here is Richard Kay writing in the Daily Mail. "Amid all the pandemonium, the rangy blond figure strode comfortably from side to side, collecting flowers and shaking hands - always with the faintly awkward air of red-faced bewilderment".

It makes you want to kick him, but he's no different from the others. This is Damian Whitworth of the Times: "Prince William showed yesterday ... that he has inherited his mother's instinct for enchanting crowds with the slightest gesture".

We are at the stage with William that we were with Diana at 17 years, when the newspapers photographed her outside a children's nursery in London, having cunningly arranged for the poor girl to stand with the sun behind her so that the light shone through her skirt. You probably remember her face; shy, hapless, a little awkward - not unlike William's in Vancouver. Now consider what our unflinching gaze did to that girl, the hardness that grew in her expression, the freaky ambivalence, the terror, the self- loathing and self-love.

In five years' time William's story will change, too. It must develop because the tabloids need a new line for the Monday morning circulation push. Suddenly there will be murmurs of disapproval from Kay and his associates who, with their matronly twittering, will point to the signs of long nights and the unsuitability of the Prince's latest escort. Then some strumpet will prove their worst fears by selling her story to one of Murdoch's rags. Doubtless it will be accompanied by a tape, maybe even some film, which will be placed on the Internet to serve the public interest better. You don't believe me? Then cast your mind back to the playing of the "squidgy tapes" by News International. Think of Camillagate. The boy's head is already on the block and he is smiling at the executioner.

Everything seems fine today, but fast forward, if you will, to the moment when the axe rises in slow motion, and we watch in our casual and callous way the mistrust entering the young man's face, as he realises that no one will lift a finger to help. You see it now in the tungsten-baked grimace of the Grimaldi children from Monaco and the new generation of media-prey bred by Juan Carlos for the delectation of the Spanish magazine Hola!

The one person who knows about this arena is Prince Charles. He understands completely what is in store for his young sons, especially the elder boy, who is cursed with Diana's charm and good looks. And yet there he was in Vancouver, fooling with the hat and striking a very nice note of spontaneity with his boys. It seemed genuine enough and, after everything, it was good to see them looking so happy. But that's the point. Once you catch yourself feeling such things, you become involved in the soap. When the Prince and his sons perform less naturally on the next outing, you'll find yourself wondering, along with the bottom-feeders of the royal corps, what's up with Wills? Or why is Prince Harry looking so glum. In all probability nothing is wrong: it's just that the story line has changed and the pictures have been chosen to fit the new twist in the plot.

And so the lives of these two young boys have been dedicated to our pleasure. It is an intolerable burden, which apparently William has some inkling of; although naturally the royal correspondents have been anxious to show that he warmed to the attention in Vancouver and began to perform like a professional. They would say this because their careers were all looking somewhat spent - they were in need of a new royal star. Now a "rangy blond" is thrilling the crowds again and they can relax. We may even yet see the return of that preposterous figure, James Whitaker, the Daily Mirror's former royal correspondent who announced his retirement from the circuit last autumn.

The point about the members of the royal press corps is that they are our representatives. Without the endorse- ment of our newspaper purchases each Monday this extraordinary circus would not exist. But there again, in an age when the actual emperors are men such as Rupert Murdoch, the only point of royalty is the pleasure of watching their slow torment. It would indeed be a pity to sacrifice these two nice-looking boys to that nasty little atavism.