Amol Rajan's Royal Stumble: Why the BBC's 'Princes vs. Press' doc is like reporting on professional wrestling...
While the hacks kept their hackles up, the central theme of episode one was breaking kayfabe.
At the height of Britpop1, there was such a fascination with the Gallagher brothers that Wibbling Rivalry, a single featuring Liam and Noel engaged in an explosive row during an interview (with NME hack and future Guardian columnist John Harris as the rather ineffectual referee), reached number 53 in the charts. We’ve reached a same point in the story of Princes William and Harry.
Where the royal brothers once sang the same old songs, they’re now separated by both an ocean and their attitude to the monarchy’s protection racket deal with the tabloids. William and Kate “play the game”, letting papers put together ‘commemorative’ calendars of their children2, collaborating on photo-ops, and grinning for the travelling hack pack.
Harry, who had already had enough of the tabloids long before he met Meghan continues to reject that deal. So the Cambridges are doted on by the British press and the Sussexes’ every move is set upon and ripped apart.
At the start of episode one of his two-part documentary The Princes and the Press, ubiquitous BBC irritant Amol Rajan sets up the premise:
Journalists are always doing unspoken deals with people. I worked in newspapers for the best part of a decade; I cut a few deals myself. The Windsor deal is: The royals get to live in a palace, they get some tax payer funding3, in return — so long as they grant access and a steady supply of stories and pictures — they get favourable coverage. But that deal only works if both parties stick to their side of the bargain. The question was: Would the children of Princess Diana want to play that game?
Rajan is saying the quiet bit loud when he talks about “the unspoken deals”; having clawed his way out of the British press’ particular bucket of crabs into the relative safety of the BBC he feels comfortable to tell the papers’ secrets. They will not thank him for it.
Tim Ewart, who was ITV’s Royal Editor from 2009 to 2017, will also find himself scratched off the royal press pack’s Christmas lists. He says in the programme:
The media — particularly the tabloids — is like a puppy: They will roll over and let you tickle their tummy for a while but eventually they’ll bite you. For some reason there was a slight growth in resentment. I think it was particularly about Kate. The photographers felt she wasn’t giving them the best shot and she was using her hair to hide her face and so on and so forth.
The question was about William and Kate’s enduring popularity: Were they being as friendly with the media as perhaps everybody would have wanted?
A decision was taken: ‘Let’s get ‘em, let’s turn the tables, let’s bite back… and there was one quite easy way to do it — look at workload. Royals are always susceptible to accusations of not working hard enough.
The ‘Workshy Wills’ headlines of 2017 were the result of that organised tabloid turn Ewart discusses early on in the documentary. And the message seems to have been heard loud and clear by the Prince who has thoroughly got in line with the press since, especially as it praises him and his wife while slamming Harry and Meghan.
For the Irish viewer the documentary’s most revealing aspect is what it says about the British psyche. The royals are, on one hand, held in genuine reverence; yet, on the other, they are treated as red meat for the following morning’s headline.
I’d go further: Despite the pretence of honouring ‘tradition’, the truth is that the Royals are essentially the Kardashians with less talent, less creativity, and less of an ability to walk away from the media. The Monarchy needs the press to burnish the myth and has fully signed up to the protection racket.
That the newspapers — many of whose royal correspondents appears as on-camera interviewees in Rajan’s documentary — are now going in hard on it with stories of the Monarchy’s “displeasure” and claims that — in the words of The Daily Mail — “Meghan’s mouthpieces” were privileged over the “rest of the Royals” is just another aspect of the deal.
The BBC is a constant target for both Lord Rothermere’s newspapers (The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday particularly) and the Murdoch titles. And the Royals, using Martin Bashir’s interview as a distraction from their own role in making Diana miserable, are rowing in behind the papers. That’s why we’re seeing stories like today’s Sun splash (“Wills & Kate Bin BBC”), which brands Rajan’s programme the “biased Harry & Meg doc”.
The issue with Rajan’s documentary is not bias towards Harry and Meghan, but rather a willingness to accept the testimony of newspaper hacks and a pretence that the BBC is somehow beyond creating and buying into media narratives.
A key quote comes from the mouth of the Richard Palmer, the Daily Express’ Royal Correspondent:
I think it was interesting that the narrative was ‘Workshy William’ and not Harry. And that was because Harry was regarded as too popular to have a pop at, at that point.
The switch from attacking William to attacking Harry came following the start of his relationship with Meghan, his public efforts to defend her, and the sense that there was now something that the tabloids could easily attack. Once again, this is a hack saying the quiet bit so loudly it’s like he has a megaphone pressed to his lips. If Harry were to comply with the deal, the coverage would change again.
Camilla Tominey, now at The Telegraph but previously Royal Editor of The Daily Express from 2005 to 2018, features fairly extensively in the documentary. In a piece headlined Brief encounters: the truth about the Palace PR machine and how we journalists get royal stories, she writes of meeting Rajan:
After blowing some smoke up my backside about the exclusive, which was nominated for Scoop of the Year at the 2016 British Press Awards, Rajan then started trying to find out how I got the story.
Since a journalist never reveals her sources, I gave him rather short shrift and we then went on to discuss how Meghan was initially very well received by the media and the relationship between the Palace and the press in general.
Tominey has been bylined on a string of ludicrous ‘scoops’ about Harry in recent years and has previously dismissed any notion of a ‘deal’ between the Monarchy and the murky and mucky press pack chasing them:
Contrary to the ‘invisible contract’ Harry claims the palace has with the press, royal coverage works roughly like this: good royal deeds = good publicity. Bad royal deeds = bad publicity. We effectively act as a critical friend, working on behalf of a public that rightly expects the royals to take the work – but not themselves – seriously.
So when a royal couple preaches about climate change before taking four private jets in 11 days, it is par for the course for a royal scribe to point out the inconsistency of that message. None of it is ever personal…
That’s clearly untrue. Prince Charles’ hypocrisy gets far less sustained and vituperative attention than any double standards on his younger son’s part and The Daily Telegraph has often published pieces casting aspersions against Prince Andrew’s accusers.
A more realistic perspective on the British press came from Gavin Burrows4, a private investigator who worked for The News of the World:
The editors made it very clear that you put Prince William on the front of a newspaper and he doesn’t sell as many copies as Prince Harry. Harry had become — as explained to me by a couple of editors — the ‘new Diana’. They were much more interested in Harry than William…
Burrows talked about digging into the life of Prince Harry’s previous girlfriend Chelsea Davy (“medical records, had she had an abortion, sexual diseases, ex-boyfriends: vet them, check them…):
My actions were ruthless. They were ruthless because I was greedy, I was into my cocaine, and I was living in a fake state of grandeur… [the media] was ruthless, they absolutely have got no morals.
Burrows’ perspective is far more realistic than the one painted by Tominey in her piece about appearing in the documentary. After denying that much briefing goes on at all (“The palace’s role is largely reactive, not proactive…”), she writes:
It isn’t hard to understand the relationship between “the Princes and the Press”, however. The Princes would rather nothing negative ever appeared in the press about them — and employ people to spin in their favour.
It is the job of a journalist to see through that spin and report what is really going on in a fair, accurate and contemporaneous manner - whether the Royal family like it or not.
It’s true that the Royals hate criticism despite the much quoted “never complain, never explain” line but the notion that the job of Royal correpsondents is "to see through that spin and report what is really going on… whether the Royal family like it or not” is more pompous and self-serving than Prince Andrew at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Royal correspondents like to pretend that they are something more than a bitter gaggle of gossip columnists required to report on celebrities whose fame rests entirely on emerging from magic vaginas or being married to someone who was once resident in a royal womb (“a womb with a view?”). But the truth is that they are more captured by access journalism than even political hacks.
A free, responsible and open press is of vital importance to a healthy democracy. However, too often it is overblown and unfounded claims from unnamed sources that are presented as facts and it is disappointing when anyone, including the BBC, gives them credibility.
Curiously the Royals have never issued that kind of statement castigating the newspapers about “unfounded claims from unnamed sources” despite reporting in The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and The Daily Mail which often resting on anonymous sources. It’s again evidence of “the deal” in action.
The Monarchy knows it can — as Prince Charles famously did when he hissed through gritted teeth that Nicholas Witchell was “that awful man”5 — take kicks at the BBC because its frenemies in the newspapers are equally venomous about the broadcaster.
Rajan’s documentary features a roll call of royal correspondents denying that there was any racism in their coverage of Meghan and claiming that they, in fact, “loved her… to begin with.”
A creature of the media himself, Rajan offers extremely soft commentary on moments like The Sun putting the headline Harry Girl’s On Pornhub on its frontpage. He describes it as “somewhat misleading”. It was, in fact, a deliberate distortion for which The Sun had to publish an apology. Rajan says the paper “later apologised” rather than noting that it was made to apologise.
In a mildly tougher encounter, Rajan allows then Mail on Sunday columnist Rachel Johnson to get away with explaining a November 2016 piece in which she wrote…
If there is issue from her alleged union with Prince Harry, the Windsors will thicken their watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair with some rich and exotic DNA.
… as “probably ill-advised” but written “a few years ago… we wouldn’t go anywhere near that now because we would be cancelled now.” Rajan does point out that it was only four years ago but accepts Johnson’s explanation that:
I wouldn’t have written “exotic DNA” now because now I know, because I have been educated and I’ve been educated myself, that ‘exotic’ is a euphemism for “black” which you don’t dare say… all I was doing was contrasting that the fact that the Spencers have very pale skin and gingery hair with her gorgeous colouring. That’s all I was trying to do. I agree that it was a misfire. However you read it, it sounds either eugenicist or racist, so let’s just forget it.
How was Rachel Johnson — sister of Boris Johnson whose own back catalogue of columns is replete with such ‘missteps’ — to know in the dim and distant days of 2016 that it was a problem to fetishise someone’s skin colour?
Even now she is defending what she wrote while pretending to have “learned”. Look at the phrases she uses — “don’t date say”, “a misfire”, “it sounds racist” — and remember that in the British media it is a far greater crime to call someone racist than it is for them to actually be racist. Rajan can only bring himself to describe the tabloids’ coverage of Meghan even when they were being ‘nice’ as having a “xenophobic whiff”.
While Rajan and the team behind the documentary made sure to give the media plenty of time to defend its tactics and made plenty of excuses for it, it’s clear why the palace is stamping its feet. Just as professional wrestling once became furious when people broke kayfabe — the convention of agreeing that staged matches are, in fact, real — the Palace and press alike are uncomfortable with the reality of the deal being discussed, even in relatively soft terms.
It’s real tactical genius to fight the claims in the BBC documentary that William signed off on briefings against his brother by whispers to The Sun that the BBC is being punished and stories elsewhere claiming that the elder prince has put his foot down and told aides not to issue briefings against other members of the family. The Royals are engaged in the monarchic equivalent of The Wizard of Oz’s “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment even as the curtain bulges with entire retinues of courtiers, advisors and flunkies.
Of course there are briefings from both sides. If Wibbling Rivalry was an angry interview that provided enough material for a 7in single, William and Harry have got enough emnity to fill an entire boxset. The problem is that the elder prince — in collaboration with the tabloids — is pretending he’s the kind and nobel victim of a BBC hatchet job, even as he continues to turn the red tops to his advantage as a fully paid up participant in the protection racket.
For younger readers, Britpop was the 60s rebooted with more coke, more Union Flag jackets, and far fewer memorable songs.
Rajan is engaging in the BBC’s typical downplaying of the cost of the monarchy here. The Sovereign Grant is £87.5 million in 2021 but Republic, which campaigns for… yep, a republic, estimates the real annual cost of the Royals is closer to £345 million, when policing and expenditure by local council on visits is taken into account.
Burrows is now a witness in the legal actions against News UK. It obviously disputes his claims.