A Monarchy Out of Step With Press
Critics say the royal family's handling of the media is outdated and damaging
LONDON — MEDIA experts are urging Queen Elizabeth II and other members of Britain's royal family to take a hard look at their relationship with television and mass-circulation newspapers. They are worried that the monarchy may be damaged if present arrangements for keeping the media informed about the royal family's life are not brought up to date and placed on a footing of mutual respect.
The experts' concern is being fueled by the continuing aftershock of the announcement two months ago that Prince Andrew, the Queen's second son, and the Duchess of York (Sarah Ferguson) were to end their marriage. Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, the semiofficial guide to Britain's titled families, says the announcement of the marriage breakup was "a public relations mess."
He says current arrangements, in which Buckingham Palace press officers are denied direct access to members of the royal family, are "bound to cause problems" and "likely in the long run to weaken the monarchy."
Last week several newspapers published stories about a possible marital rift between Prince Charles and his wife, Diana, and noted that Andrew Morton, a tabloid newspaper journalist, was about to publish a book giving details of the couple's alleged problems. But the Buckingham Palace press office gave journalists its standard "no comment."
The furor over the rift between Andrew and the Duchess of York was triggered by a story leaked to the Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper. The disclosure gave Charles Anson, the Queen's press secretary, no option but to make an official announcement.
He also gave a background briefing to a correspondent from the British Broadcasting Corporation, putting the blame on the Duchess for the marital rift. The correspondent reported that "the knives are out for Fergie [her mass-media nickname] at the palace." Uproar ensued.
Mr. Anson, a career diplomat seconded to Buckingham Palace for duties as a press officer, was obliged to apologize to the Queen and the Duchess for giving the briefing. It soon became clear, however, that the Queen and her officials were furious with the Duchess for having spoken to the media about her marital problems, instead of letting Anson handle the matter.
No one could recall a royal press secretary ever having to apologize to the monarch. The "Fergie crisis," as London's squadron of reporters have taken to calling it, is the worst case so far of sour relations between the palace and the media. Godfrey Talbot, a veteran commentator on the life and activities of the royal family, says the marriage breakup has spotlighted a deeper problem for the Queen's family.
Mr. Talbot described the life of its members "like goldfish in a bowl." Mass-circulation tabloid newspapers, he says, had "intruded into virtually all aspects of the young couple's life." The marriage had apparently cracked under the strain, and it was likely other royal marriages would suffer the same if nothing was done. "Things must change if the monarchy is not to be severely damaged," Talbot added.
Anson and his three assistants are greatly restricted in the information about royal matters they are allowed to divulge to the media. Royal reporters say the press office responds negatively to journalists' attempts to get on better terms with it and seldom takes an initiative to improve relations. Harry Arnold, chief reporter for the newspaper The Sun, says: "If you ask them the Queen's shoe size, they won't tell you."
Richard Kay, royal-affairs reporter for the Daily Mail, says he spent five years "trying to butter up the press office" but concluded that it was useless. "There is no quid pro quo from the palace." Some observers trace the monarchy's present problems with the media to 1969 when the Queen permitted a BBC television crew to record a year in the life of the royal family. The aim was to give people a clearer idea of the family at the heart of the monarchy.
The result was a 110-minute documentary that, according to Anthony Jay, a TV writer and producer, created a serious dilemma for the monarchy. Mr. Jay puts the problem this way: "If the people at the palace seek publicity, how will they be any different from the film stars, pop singers, and all the other publicity seekers and media manipulators?"
The mass media's answer, it seems, is that they are no different. After the announcement of the Andrew-Fergie rift, a horde of journalists and photographers pursued the Duchess and her two infant children to Thailand where she was trying to stay out of the limelight. The Duchess has since decided to move to a separate house, but the Buckingham Palace press office last week said it could neither confirm nor deny that fact. It also had no comment when vans were seen moving the Duchess's furniture.
Mr. Brooks-Baker says there are dangers for the monarchy in the anger generated by the way the Yorks' marriage breakdown had been handled by Buckingham Palace officials. It had been a mistake to put the blame on the Duchess. Much depended on what she said about it in future.
"There are reports that she plans to write her autobiography. If she does, I would hate to think what would be left of the institution of monarchy after that," Brooks-Baker says.
The difficulties facing anyone trying to streamline the Buckingham Palace press office are underlined by Sir David English, editor of the Daily Mail. Defending his decision to publish the story about the marriage breakup, he denied the palace allegation that the Duchess had herself leaked the details to his paper.
"The story was obtained through journalistic enterprise, was researched over 10 days, and checked against three separate sources," he says, adding that the palace had been given details of the story before publication and had offered no denial.
Journalists following the story subsequently say that most of the details in the Daily Mail story had been provided by friends of the Duchess, illustrating the difficulty any royal press secretary would have had in preventing or discouraging its publication.
The royal family's difficulties with the media contrast sharply with the run-up to the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936. Until Edward admitted his love affair with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, the matter had hardly been mentioned in British newspapers. Most members of the British public were surprised.