On August 31, 1997, at Pont de l‘Alma in Paris, something in Britain changed utterly. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash. So did Dodi Fayed, the son of the Egyptian businessman who owned Harrods department store in London. Diana was 36 years old. It was an event shocking in itself and even more shocking for the tremors it sent through the British political system and monarchy.
For some, Princess Diana was gold dust. Stories about her – true or otherwise – sold newspapers and books. Her personal life had become public property, at least as far as tabloid newspapers were concerned. She died as she had lived for many years, hunted – pursued by paparazzi. They knew that one good picture or exclusive story might make them thousands of pounds. These events are worth remembering now because this was not just the death of a princess. It was also the death of a mother, a sister, a human being.
One of those who fear history could repeat itself is Diana’s younger son, Prince Harry. He is both angry and protective of the American woman closest to him now, the mother of his child, his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. She is now being pursued by some newspapers and paparazzi. The prince has begun what is being described as an unprecedented attack on the tabloid “press pack” which he says has “vilified her almost daily for the past nine months”. Prince Harry writes: “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person.”
The couple started legal action through the British law firm Schillings against The Mail on Sunday and its owners Associated Newspapers. He alleges the misuse of private information, infringement of copyright and breach of the 2018 Data Protection Act. The merits of this case can be debated, although some lawyers think he has a reasonable chance of succeeding. But it is the fact that the case is being brought at all which is so astonishing. It sends the strongest possible signal that the prince is trying to push back at the media, as he himself puts it, because of the “human cost to this relentless propaganda”. He has reportedly also begun legal action against the owners of the Sun, the defunct News of the World and the Daily Mirror, in relation to alleged phone-hacking.
It is difficult not to have sympathy with what Prince Harry has written. I confess I do not read tabloid reports about the royal family, but there is a big issue here which journalists worldwide – and the family itself – must face. In the world of 24 hour news and internet trolls, where must we draw the line between legitimate interest and hateful gossip?
The couple have been in South Africa and, given Meghan’s African-American heritage and her bonding with people of all races and backgrounds, she has received hugely positive coverage. But Prince Harry, in the jargon, has “stepped on his own story”, blowing the good public relations off the front pages with his anti-media diatribe. Moreover, there is legitimate royal reporting. The couple have spent £2.4 million refurbishing their home, Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, a “cottage” set in 33 acres of grounds, with the bills picked up by taxpayers. There has also been widespread reporting on the Harry-Meghan interest in climate change, with some alleging a degree of hypocrisy since they travel by air including occasionally by private jet.
Personally I think the British get a reasonable bargain out of most of the key royals for the goodwill they bring. Even the tabloids cannot expect them to visit South Africa by paddling a canoe. But that is beside the point.
Princess Diana’s death was a watershed for the monarchy. According to royal advisers I spoke to at the time and subsequently, it made them open up a bit – eventually. Until 1997, in the words of former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli but quoted to me by one royal staffer, the royals had followed the rule “never complain and never explain”. Since Diana’s death, they have explained a bit more and complained a bit more too – through their advisers. Nevertheless, Prince Harry’s intervention is extraordinary. Some claim it is unwise. But in the British popularity contest, according to pollsters YouGov (2018), Harry was second only to Queen Elizabeth II, his grandmother, and was most popular among younger millennials.
In his famous work The English Constitution of 1867, published at the height of British power and with Queen Victoria on the throne, Walter Bagehot wrote that the monarch represented the “dignified” part of the unwritten constitution while governments represent the “efficient” part. The role of the monarch was to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population”. Most people would agree that in 2019 the queen has been successful in that role. Bagehot also said that governments were responsible for those parts of the constitution through which the country “works and rules”.
With the uncertainty around Brexit, the government neither “works” nor “rules” efficiently. I suggest newspapers should give the royals a break. Right now we cannot afford another institution to be damaged by carelessness and stupidity – as well as tabloid greed and spite.