The Royal Family and the media that follows it are involved in an existential struggle. It’s an extraordinary state of affairs, given that less than four years ago the royal hack pack was cheerleader-in-chief at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and hectoring the BBC for its bungled bowing of the knee at the Thames Pageant.
Relations between Buckingham Palace and Fleet Street deteriorated yet further last week when The Sun outed Her Majesty as an “outer” in the European referendum debate. “Queen Backs Brexit”, splashed the paper. The palace swiftly complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, claiming the interpretation of a 2011 lunch conversation was inaccurate and misleading.
The Sun might have been claiming Her Majesty as a sympathiser with the views of the majority of its readership – but it was also making a point on her rights to privacy, or lack of them. “The idea that there is some kind of Ruritanian anonymity for the Queen is for the birds,” Sun editor Tony Gallagher told Robert Peston of ITV News. “We’re journalists. We just have to put these things in the public domain.”
Gallagher was firing a shot in a much bigger war between the Royals and the press, regarding not only their relations with each other but their respective roles in society. The younger Royals – Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge – are making a concerted effort to redefine the rules on the media’s access to their lives.
In a long screed published last month on the website of the Daily Express, traditionally one of Britain’s most-monarchist papers, royal correspondent Richard Palmer suggested that relations with the Windsors had become so sour that his line of work could soon be consigned to history. “It would be a shame to see the job of royal correspondent go the same way as the newspaper labour correspondent of the 1970s or the zoological gardens correspondent of the 1950s,” he mused.
Palmer confided that one member of the Royal Family had confidently predicted that the royal hack pack – maybe the press in its entirety – was in its death throes and “it will all go to social media eventually”.
That explains why the royals seek to take control of their own media narrative by embracing Twitter, where a Kensington Palace account uploads dry details of royal engagements alongside stiff photographs reminiscent of local newspapers in the days before colour presses. Kate’s choice of the Huffington Post, mostly a platform for amateur bloggers, as media partner for her latest attempt to highlight her chosen charity topic of mental illness was interpreted as another attempt to sideline Fleet Street. Prince Charles showed contempt for journalistic process, ahead of speaking about climate change in December, when he issued Channel 4 News with an extraordinary 15-page pre-interview contract demanding the right to pull his contribution if unsatisfied with the finished package.
Most of all, William and Harry have a deep antipathy for the media. When the Cambridges excluded press photographers from their family skiing trip to Courchevel this month, Piers Morgan, Mail Online editor-at-large, explained: “Prince William hates the press and this is a very deliberate and unacceptable attempt to shackle and control them.” William apparently sees little distinction between the paparazzi who pursued his mother to her last in the Paris car crash of 1997 and the photographers who once gathered as a matter of protocol to take family portraits on the first days of royal skiing holidays.
That tradition effectively ended after the disastrous 2005 trip to Klosters, when a still mic’d-up Prince Charles famously said of BBC royal correspondent Nick Witchell “I can’t bear that man, I mean, he’s so awful, he really is.” And then the Daily Mirror’s Emily Nash wormed her way into the young princes’ social group and revealed their partying antics.
Some might say the press forfeited its right to future invitations. No wonder, they might say, the Cambridges allowed only the veteran Press Association photographer John Stillwell – who they’d trusted to picture Prince George on his first birthday – to come to Courchevel.
But the pattern of press blackout goes much further. Since becoming a mother, the Duchess has largely preferred to release photos of Prince George and Princess Charlotte that she has taken herself. The Cambridges have stepped up their efforts to block publication of pictures which they claim are invasive, even when taken in public places. “They have tried to create a new law of privacy around Kate and squashed pictures of her that have been taken quite legitimately,” one senior Fleet Street figure told me.
Ipso ruled in favour of Prince Andrew when he complained over press photos of his house being prepared for a Disney-themed party for his daughter Princess Eugenie. Repeated complaints from William led to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin imposing a permanent no-fly zone over Anmer Hall, the Cambridges’ 10-bedroom home on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.
While it’s perfectly understandable that William wants to protect his wife from the fate suffered by his mother, it’s something else to expect to live by different laws from the rest of society. The press now talks of the “Middleton Rules”, shaped by William with Kate’s father, Michael, and intended to shield the Cambridges from the public gaze.
Hostility is growing. William is the subject of a press campaign, led by The Sun, which denounces him as workshy for his lack of public engagements and his 20-hour week as an air ambulance man. Kate is the “Invisible Princess”.
It’s not just the press fighting for survival here. The Cambridges represent the future of the monarchy. Without the support of such once-fervently royalist titles such as The Sun, the Mail and the Express, that’s a future which is less certain. “The public are turning on these two,” said one Henley-on-Thames commentator to Mail Online’s coverage of the ski blackout. “Once the Queen goes, the Royal Family will fall apart.”
Kate is not Diana. Her front page pictures do not sell newspapers (though the children do, hence some of the problems). Kate and William are not big drivers of online traffic; Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies ruled on social media last week. The palace shouldn’t look to the HuffPo to organise the nation’s Union flag bunting and street parties.
There are signs that the public – more than ever drawn to noisy extremes – is a bit bored of a princess who is elegant but reticent and a prince who thinks he deserves the life of a Norfolk squire. They will need to be seen to match the work rate of William’s grandparents if they are to be considered global ambassadors worthy of their publicly funded lifestyles. The Firm’s fortunes, and the quality of its press, will briefly revive in April for the Queen’s 90th birthday. After that, the Royals and their once-faithful chroniclers need to patch up their differences, or be left without a purpose.