British press flirts with a princess . . . and angers a queen

The man from Buckingham Palace was not amused. ''Something may have to be done,'' he said. ''It's a bit worse, but not much worse, than usual just now. . . .''

Thus did the Queen's press secretary, Michael Shea, comment when asked about the latest set of headlines to center on the royal family, especially on Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales who have been skiing on the Alpine slopes of Liechtenstein.

The press finally packed its bags and left the ski slopes after palace protests. But the episode illustrates a dilemma for both the most famous royal family in the world, and for the international press itself.

On the one hand, royal figures are objects of enormous popularity and interest wherever they go. The publicity helps reinforce the genuine affection many feel for them and their role as symbols of and ambassadors for Britain itself. On the other hand, the Queen feels that the press often goes too far and is guilty of invading royal privacy.

The entire issue has been sharpened because the newest and in many ways the most photogenic and glamorous member of the royal circle is a young, 21-year-old girl with a natural shyness.

Needed now are ways to balance the interests of both press and royalty. Mr. Shea told me he felt that another meeting of Fleet Street editors and broadcasters might be necessary.

Thirteen months ago the palace called one to ask that the princess be left alone. The press obliged for a while, but since the birth of Prince William last summer, it has taken up the chase with redoubled effort.

The palace thinks the press again went too far when Prince Charles and the Princess arrived in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, for a skiing holiday just after the new year.

Reporters and photographers staked out the castle where the couple stayed. A Daily Express photographer says he was punched by a bodyguard. The prince's personal detective tried to bump away the Daily Mail's Alpine correspondent who was skiing along behind the couple to analyze the royal skiing style. A Swiss newspaper hired a helicopter. As the royal couple skied down a slope, the helicopter repeatedly dived into their path while a photographer clicked away.

The editor of The Sunday People newspaper, Nicholas Lloyd, tried to put his own case on the new BBC breakfast television program a few days ago. His newspaper, along with the Sunday News of the World, and the dailies The Sun and the Daily Star, are regarded by the palace as among the worst offenders.

Fleet Street, according to Mr. Lloyd, kept the royal family's privacy over the Christmas and New Year period at Sandringham, but when royal figures visited public places, such as Alpine ski slopes, the British press had a job to do.

The princess could avoid mob scenes, Mr. Lloyd went on, if she agreed to pose for pictures for a few minutes at the start of each day.

Mr. Shea briskly dismissed Mr. Lloyd's points.

''The press did not leave the royal family alone over the holidays,'' he said. ''There were 50 journalists around Sandringham during the first two weeks of the year.

''And it is rubbish to say that the press would be satisfied with three minutes of pictures each morning. They would still chase the prince and princess during the day. They do it whether the princess is in a public or a private place - look at the photographers who hid at a private beach in the West Indies last year to catch the princess.

''No, I'm afraid what we saw in Liechtenstein was a measure of the standards of the lower half of the Fleet Street press.''

Mr. Lloyd received a distinctly chilly reception from his BBC interviewers - and guest Jane Pauley of the NBC-TV ''Today'' program said she felt the US press treated the royal family with far more respect than the British did.

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