Sir Richard Colville once declared that “If there comes a time when the British Monarchy ever needs a ‘public relations’ officer, the institution of monarchy in this country will be in serious danger.” Despite this grim forecast, the remit of Royal Communications – the branch of the private secretary’s office responsible for all official communications between the media and the Queen and the royal family – has ballooned since Colville, the man known to Fleet Street as Her Majesty’s ‘Anti-Press Secretary’ and ‘the Abominable No Man’, kept the nation’s journalists at bay from Buckingham Palace.
Where newspapers could once be relied on to self-censor, publishing only stories which reassured the public of the royal family’s inherent dignity, the intense mediatisation of British public life has irrevocably transformed the dynamics between press and Sovereign. As Prince Philip once put it, the royals found themselves “fighting an election every day of the week”.
Changing with the times.
While coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh and the then-Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 honeymoon was considered an invasion of privacy by the standards of the time, it looks quaint and deferent in comparison to the treatment of their children once they reached adulthood. The demand for candid photos of the royals at play was duly fed by the increasingly aggressive paparazzi, adding vivid colour to hysterical tabloid speculation about the personal lives of the young royals. The question of when and who Prince Charles would wed dominated the gossip pages of the late-1970s; by the time of his marriage to the 19-year old Diana Spencer, the ferocity of press intrusion into the lives of the next generation of royals had become almost unbearable.
The queen had already adapted to the democratisation of broadcast technology in the early years of her reign. Her coronation was the first to be televised; the Christmas speech was first aired on television in 1957; and, in 1969, the queen took the unprecedented step of commissioning a behind-the-scenes documentary about the life of ‘working’ royals.
Criticised by David Attenborough at the time for robbing the monarchy of its mystery (and, therefore, its source of power), the documentary sought to present the Windsors as an ordinary middle-class family. The queen was filmed taking Prince Edward for an ice cream in Balmoral village; Prince Philip, who had attracted the public’s ire for complaining about having to downsize to a smaller yacht, barbecued sausages for a family picnic like any dad might.
The end of an era.
Despite these attempts to fashion an entente cordiale with the forces of television, the era ushered in by Diana’s marriage into the royal family exposed new vulnerabilities in the palace comms operation. Following her acrimonious split from the Prince of Wales, Diana made no secret of having felt like she’d been thrown to the wolves of Fleet Street by the Royal Household Press Office in the early days of their relationship. But interpersonal froideur between Diana, senior royals, and the “men in grey suits” who ran the firm is only one half of the story.
The other was that the age of deference between the press and the palace had ended. Upon the announcement of Diana’s first pregnancy, the queen’s press secretary Michael Shea called a meeting of the editors of the national papers at Buckingham Palace. Shea made “a plea for mercy” at the special briefing, followed up by the queen herself circulating amongst the gathered hacks to compound the pressure.
It didn’t work. Just two months later, The Sun and Daily Star published pictures showing Diana wearing a bikini and visibly pregnant. After a statement was issued by the palace indicating the queen’s “extreme displeasure”, both papers republished the photographs alongside their apologies. In addition to the stampedes of photographers which accompanied the Princess of Wales wherever she went, the 1990s heralded a prurient media interest in the royals’ sex lives, perhaps only comparable to the bawdy poets of Charles II’s reign.
In 1992, the Daily Mirror published photographs of Sarah Ferguson – the Duchess of York, who’d only recently separated from her husband Prince Andrew – having her toes sucked by her ‘financial advisor’, Texan millionaire John Bryan. The following year, a transcript of a phone call between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles found its way onto the front page of The People. The recording was made in 1989, when both Charles and Camilla were married to Diana and Andrew Parker-Bowles respectively, and became known as ‘Tampongate’ for some of the prince’s more unguarded comments.
Mother to a nation.
Against the rash of open infidelity and bitter divorces amongst senior royals (beginning with Elizabeth’s own sister, Princess Margaret), the outward stability of the queen’s 73-year marriage to the duke allowed her to float above much of the tabloid frenzy which plagued her children. But this contrast contributed to a carefully cultivated – and politically potent – image of the queen as an avatar of matronly authority. In a nauseatingly condescending comment about the queen’s role amongst Commonwealth leaders, former private secretary Martin Charteris said: “It’s like Nanny being there. Or perhaps it’s Mummy. She demands that they behave properly in her presence. Never by saying anything, but by looking like a queen – ‘and no bloody nonsense from you!’” Elizabeth herself is reported to have been fond of saying “I have to be seen to be believed.”
The expansion of the media, coupled with the political upheavals of the 20th century, shredded the monarchy of its divinity. But through shrewd engagement with the media – often seen, and only rarely heard – Elizabeth compensated for the loss of mystery by swaddling the crown within the protective image of the monarch as mother, and then grandmother, to a nation.
It’s striking that the most hostile headlines the queen ever faced were the accusations of her indifference following the death of Diana. As Elizabeth and Philip stayed cloistered with the young William and Harry at Balmoral, the papers in London turned their hostility on the absent monarch. “Show us you care,” whined The Express, while The Mail asked pointedly, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” No other scandal, not even suggestions that she abused her constitutional role in approving legislation, came as close to damaging the queen personally. More first matriarch than head of state, public opinion rapidly soured when she was seen to have insufficiently mothered the country in a time of need.
“So long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak,” wrote the great Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot, “Royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding.” But after the technological and political revolutions of the 20th century, the divine grandeur of royalty looked little more than a tatty veil draped over the greed and despotism of Europe’s blue bloods. Elizabeth understood that the dignity of the monarch had to be reinvented as something closer to home in order to hit the mark of the public’s heart – less per me reges regnant, and more primus inter nanas.
An uncertain future.
The fragile and conditional concordat brokered by the matronly Mrs Windsor between the crown and the press will be vulnerable as mourning subsides, and the country looks for symbolic meaning in the new King Charles. What will replace the grandmotherly authority embodied by his predecessor? Charles’ near-lifetime of waiting in the wings has been most clearly defined by his tumultuous relationship with (divorce from) Diana Spencer. Though his eldest son William is largely untroubled by the UK’s tabloids, the vicious treatment meted out to daughter-in-law Meghan Markle spurred her and Prince Harry to relocate to America and the protective jurisdiction of Tyler Perry.
And while the late queen managed to remain remarkably unscathed during Prince Andrew’s shameful legal battle with Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre, it’s unclear whether Charles will be shown the same leniency. The crises of identity and purpose that were deferred by Elizabeth’s stewardship of the crown could yet make an unwelcome return.