The royal ostrich and the coconut

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The Independent Online
GREAT NEW enterprises are traditionally re-examined after 100 days. Well, we have arrived at the centenary of the Princess of Wales's decision to retire from public life and it is time to assess how it is going.

I realise that, in even mentioning her name in a newspaper, I am violating the Princess's desire for absolute anonymity, but she will perhaps make an exception for coverage of an analytical kind.

Last week, the Princess featured on the front page of most tabloid newspapers on most days of the week. If I were her, I would call in my anti-publicity representatives - which I assume sophisticated media types now employ when trying to leave public life - and say: 'Look, guys, there seems to be a problem. Operation Ostrich isn't working. I'm still on all these front pages . . .'

Her anti-PR aides would, I think, point out that the headlines in question were not generated either by them or by her. To be fair to the Princess, there is no evidence that she has, since her disavowal of stardom, assisted in the preparation of biographies of her, taken her boys to Alton Towers on a day which coincided with the Royal Photographers' Club annual outing there, or any stunts of this kind which might lead cynics to doubt her revulsion of publicity; although the Sun has complained in a leading article that she was happy enough to sit in the VIP box at a rugby match and to wear a short skirt in public. Why the latter disqualifies a woman from private citizenship was not made clear.

Last week's coverage resulted from the decision of her friend and equestrian coach, James Hewitt, a former major in the Life Guards, to serialise his nudge-nudge, but avowedly platonic, memories of her in the Daily Express, and from the anonymous leaking to newspapers of a letter from her brother, Viscount Althorp. None of these stories was directly the Princess's fault, but they are an illustration of the difficulties she faces if she is sincere about her retreat from public life.

She was also reported in the posher press to have lunched publicly with one of her newer gurus, the great journalist Clive James, who, it is often forgotten, once published a 100-page epic poem in which she appeared under the name of Lady Diana Seethrough-Spiffing. Among James's other books was one called Fame, so he should be able to explain to the Princess that, once a person becomes infected, celebrity is not event-driven, but celebrity- driven. Jackie Onassis retreated from public life 30 years ago, and her position in American life is now entirely one of curiosity rather than Constitution, but she just got on the cover of People magazine again by being ill.

But the appearance of the Hewitt interview and the Althorp letter establish something far more ominous for Diana. In a media market new to Britain, in which royal scandal, even transcripts of private telephone calls, have been reported without concern, the one protection of the royals was that their intimates refused to blab.

The Princess may have thought she was safe befriending a major, but indiscreet revelation seems to be a classless art. (Someone from a higher-born branch of my family advises me that Hewitt was a new-money major and that Diana would still have been OK with an old- money one.) The reporting of a family letter seems to me unjustified under almost any definition of privacy - for it seems to have contained nothing the public has a right to know - but the leaking of it emphasises the terrible transparency of a celebrity's private life.

So, after 100 days, the Princess of Wales has proved an incompetent ostrich; though, so far, through navety more than insincerity. But she is not in this game alone, despite being socially a single woman. Fame has frequently been compared to a seesaw. In the case of the Princess of Wales, the image is unusually exact. It is her husband who occupies the opposite seat, and it is simply not possible for both of them to be up at the same time. Whatever gravity Charles manages to gather to his side will result in Diana plummeting.

In the 100 days in which the Princess has been keeping her head down and digging in her heels, the Prince has been holding up his chin and standing on tiptoe. In March 1994, he is - as he and his PR advisers hoped - a more talked-about, reported-on and sympathetically regarded figure than he was six months ago.

The problem is the source of this exposure and concern. The Prince of Wales has reclaimed the attention of his country by assuming the guise of a man whom large numbers of deranged people wish to kill. The arrest last week of a man with a lengthy breadknife in the crowd outside the royal premiere of Shadowlands - which the Prince was shortly to open - was the third potential assassin to target him in recent weeks, following those in Australia and New Zealand.

Assassins seem, historically, to come in patterns, for reasons odder than the copycat effect. Attempts peppered the Sixties and - as the BBC's news-and-music show The Rock 'n' Roll Years tangentially reminded us last week - President Reagan, the Pope and President Sadat were all gunned down in 1981.

So far, 1994 has seen one apparently serious stalker of President Clinton, as well as the three for Prince Charles. Why the British heir should suddenly have become a target is mysterious. There is, for example, no evidence that his assailants have a moral agenda on marriage, reincarnation, modern architecture or any other issue with which he is publicly linked.

And the situation of the Prince of Wales is unusual in that most of those other public figures targeted at various times have been general headline celebrities, for whom being fired or lunged at simply increases the amount of coverage. Prince Charles, bizarrely, has become what might be called a coconut celebrity, appearing in the papers only when something is aimed at him.

The tour of the Antipodes, intended to rehabilitate him as a future monarch, was more or less ignored until a man ran on to the stage in Sydney with a gun, from which point the trip became front-page news, though the content of the reports consisted of whether the Prince had survived the day's engagements. Last week the Prince was touring Wales, his constitutional turf, amid the kind of virtual news blackout that his wife craves but cannot arrange. It took the man with the knife at Shadowlands to win him substantial attention.

And so, after the first 100 days of their attempted media redesigns, these are the images of the royal former couple: the incompetent ostrich and the coconut. Think twice, if you are wise, before joining one of the rival courts in the PR - or, in Diana's case, anti-PR - department.

For example, personally, I would have kept the Prince - a man well-known to scour art for ideas and blueprints for living - well away from Shadowlands. This is, after all, a film about a lonely and somewhat mystical single man who tumbles into an autumnal passion with an American divorcee.

The history of both British royalty and British newspapers suggests that the Prince's aides ought to have been murmuring in his ear during the movie the famous children's television disclaimer: please don't try this at home.