Before 11am last Tuesday, there was one story set to dominate the week’s news agenda: Prince Harry and his decision to talk about his mother’s death and its impact on his mental health. On the day the prime minister rushed on to Downing Street to announce a snap election, every national newspaper featured the scoop by the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon on their front pages.
For someone so well known to open up about their own mental health, still stigmatised and starved of funding, is news enough. Add to that the memories of his mother, a woman believed to have softened the “stiff upper lips” of a nation in the first place and the public interest in both senses is pretty clear. Mental health charity Mind reported an increase in calls of almost 40% a day following the podcast, Mad World.
The interview was also a new twist in the long-running but often toxic saga of the media and the royals, particularly the younger generation who not only hold the media partly responsible for their mother’s death but were then among the victims of phone hacking.
Despite the interview providing evidence that the younger royals are still prepared to use the traditional media to promote their causes, the podcast underlines their desire to keep control of their own public image. Rather than being a straightforward rapprochement for Harry, the latest intervention simply marks the latest development in the ongoing power struggle with the press that has waged particularly strongly with the younger generation.
In recent years, the Royal family has come down hard on invasions of privacy or inaccuracy by attempting to go straight to the public via social media. Last November, Harry published a highly emotive attack on the media which effectively accused them of hounding his new girlfriend Meghan Markle in the way they hounded his mother, but with “racial undertones”, too. The letter was posted on the family’s Facebook page, where it was viewed millions of times.
Social media is not just used for complaints the royals feel may not be welcomed by the press but for pro-active promotion, too. When Harry sought to act on behalf of HIV charities last summer, he eschewed the televised visits adopted by his mother and livestreamed his subsequent blood test, again on the royal family’s Facebook page.
But it is in complaining about press misbehaviour that the younger royals have marked a changing of the guard. Not for them simply relying on the back channels and relationships to sort out the rules of engagement. In three significant instances, they have used social media to go straight to the public.
The first direct appeal to public sympathy was used by Prince William when the Palace publicised pictures of his then girlfriend Kate being hounded by the paparazzi when trying to get to work. The public initially saw images of a beautiful woman looking a bit harried on the way to work, but were then shown her surrounded by huge numbers of men sticking long lenses in her face. William, the royal who is most committed to living as “normal” a family life as possible when you live in great luxury courtesy of the taxpayer, is particularly adamant that he will not have unauthorised pictures of his children used for commercial gain by the media. In 2015, Kensington Palace issued an unprecedented warning to the media, with vivid descriptions of the lengths photographers would go to to get pictures of George and Charlotte.
Each of these warnings led to comparisons with Diana, called “the most hunted person of the modern age” by her brother after she was killed in a car crash while being chased by paparazzi in Paris in 1997. Since her death and the subsequent public outrage, British news organisations are meant not to publish paparazzi pictures obtained using any kind of pursuit.
The comparison infuriates much of the British newspaper industry, with tabloid editors in particular moaning that the entitled younger royals are not fulfilling their part of the deal: public support and sympathy in return for access, which leads to popular and therefore profitable content. Royal correspondents, still going strong on most papers despite the impact of the phone-hacking scandal, complain that access is more strictly controlled even though all royal palaces have dedicated and highly professional press teams.
Yet what the press cannot control is the use of social media itself. With more than 3m likes for the joint family account on Facebook (almost twice the circulation of the Sun), 1.7 million followers on Instagram and 850,000 followers on Twitter, some could argue that the younger royals no longer need the support of the press, with its declining print circulation.
This generation are the first Facebook royals: they share seemingly intimate family snaps taken by and curated by themselves, not newspaper editors. Pictures credited to the Duchess of Cambridge, such as those of a toddler George kissing his new baby sister, are just like the ones we all take and share with our friends and family, though typically without the services of a palace press team.
Despite all this, the younger princes still know how important the press can be. Witness the series of attacks in the Sun and Mail over the “work-shy” William and Kate based on the number of engagements carried out in 2015 and after the press had been warned off snaps of George.
Jason Knauf, the 30-something director of communications for the princes, says that 80% of the enquiries dealt with by his team come from British newspapers. Knauf, criticised in parts of the media for being both American and having worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland, adds: “We are still very reliant on traditional media to get our message across.”
The princes have only to look at the treatment of their often faintly ridiculed father to see what impact the press can have. Prince Charles himself, loathe ever to complain publicly, knows he needs support from the media for his upcoming 70th birthday in 2018.
Yet while the aggressive complaints may have satisfied the royal household – “Things changed significantly for the better,” said one former courtier – it increased the antagonism felt by the press. The Sun’s veteran royal photographer Arthur Edwards complained about William and Harry to the FT [paywall] last year. “Kensington Palace thinks they can control it all themselves. They want to ignore newspapers – but the newspapers aren’t going anywhere. We’ll still be here when Twitter’s finished.”
As if to reassert control, the Mail filled Thursday’s page three with two huge pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Markle with a piece based on the similarities of their hair. Amid huge political turmoil, the relationship between a monarchy and fourth estate will always be symbiotic. After all, they need each other to survive.
The ousting of O’Reilly
Another media story last week where succession issues loom large was the ousting by the Murdoch-owned Fox News of its most successful chat show host Bill O’Reilly.
The sacking over sexual harassment allegations is ironic: the sexist and misogynist presenter brought low by the reporting of a paper he loathed, the New York Times. Rupert Murdoch was said to be against removing the primetime linchpin simply because it looked like the Times had won.
The radical Fox management overhaul – ironic itself given the election of the channel’s biggest fan to the White House – is important for showing the younger Murdochs flexing their executive muscle. In the tense negotiations over O’Reilly’s removal, it was the Fox chief executive and youngest Murdoch son James who argued most forcefully for his removal.
Some close to the Murdochs argue that the controversy shows the more liberal-minded characters of the younger men, neither said to be fans of the overt racism and sexism on the channel. Yet, as ever for an executive who argued that the only marker of good business was “profit”, there is a business rationale.
O’Reilly might have been the top-rated presenter on Fox but advertisers had started to desert the channel. And then of course there is the Murdochs’ planned $14bn takeover of pay-TV group Sky. The deadline for media regulator Ofcom to issue its judgment on whether the Murdochs are “fit and proper” to own the whole of Sky was extended on Friday until 20 June, more than enough time the Murdochs hope for the memories of Roger Ailes and O’Reilly to be just that.
The debates debate
British broadcasters will have to decide this week what to do about leaders’ debates in the run-up to the 8 June general election if they are to have time to plan security, format and more besides. The only problem is that the prime minister is refusing to take part and no one seems able to convince her otherwise.
Twice since 2010, the leaders’ debates have proved useful to the electorate, particularly to a younger generation less likely to watch TV news or read newspapers. With such obvious public interest, why don’t we insist on an independent body that can sort the tedious negotiations out just as the US does with the commission on presidential debates?
Partly because no one seems to want it, not even the broadcasters, who rail against any straitjacket and would rather leave it to last-minute voluntary agreements. So in the UK, as ever, it’s we the media and political people and not we the people at all.
This is the second of a monthly column.