'Could have fooled me': How Prince William’s 40th was wasted taking pot shots at Harry

The Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Cambridge. (PA)
The Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Cambridge. (PA)

In the wild west of royal news coverage and commentary, you can guarantee one thing: birthdays ending in zero will always be met with big, splashy puff pieces detailing the achievements, attributes and sartorial successes of the family member in question. It’s a rare moment where scandal gets the day off and, if the royal is lucky enough, they may even get a glossy newspaper photo supplement to boot, too.

The turn of Prince William’s 40th, which he celebrates today (“privately” with his wife and children at home, I’m told), has been no different. It not only comes at a seminal moment in the Windsor story but also at a time when his senior role is more important to the Firm than ever before. Though Prince Charles is next in line, it’s William’s turn that many within the institution feel has the true potential to breathe modernity into the establishment.

The Duke of Cambridge selling the Big Issue in London. (PA)
The Duke of Cambridge selling the Big Issue in London. (PA)

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The safe space of a birthday profile usually sees palace aides keen to get involved. Rarely in an official capacity (William’s co-operative moment was saved for Big Issue—a move that tied in nicely with his ongoing interest in tackling homelessness), but more often quiet, behind-the-scenes help in the form of allowing former staff to speak on or off the record, or helping fill gaps with anonymous source quotes...

When Kate turned 30 in 2012, I remember being pleasantly surprised at how—only a year into my time covering the young royals—Kensington Palace officials were more than happy to assist as I put together a special issue of a popular US magazine.

The Duke of Cambridge has made helping the homeless one of his personal missions. (PA)
The Duke of Cambridge has made helping the homeless one of his personal missions. (PA)

The big one for the Duke of Cambridge this time around came on Saturday in the form of an “intimate portrait” in Britain’s Daily Maila paper whose complicated relationship with the royals has ebbed and flowed over the decades but is currently very close. Splashed over several pages, it promised to reveal the “true story” of a king in the making, thanks to generous contributions from those closest to William.

Sharing intimate details about or speaking on behalf of a royal as senior as William usually only happens after express permission has been given. My experience with the Duke of Cambridge is that his tight circle of friends will only talk after a nod from the man himself. In the past, those who haven’t received such authorisation have found themselves in deep trouble.

Watch: Prince William to have more central role in royal family as he turns 40

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While his birthday coverage included space for William to air his views on conservationism, the future of a slimmed-down monarchy; and his anger toward uncle Andrew, without doubt it was the relationship with Harry that was front and centre. And when royal aides and off-the-record friends turn coverage of the prince's birthday into a list of familial complaints about brother Prince Harry, I was left scratching my head at the bizarre direction they chose to take things. And the opportunity that was missed.

Instead of hearing more about the Duke’s ambitious environmental plans, we were told in detail by close sources that William feels Prince Harry “has 100 per cent crossed that line” by speaking publicly about his struggles within the family.

The Duke of Cambridge's birthday has centred on his relationship with his brother. (Daily Mail)
The Duke of Cambridge's birthday saw wounds resurface over the relationship with his brother. (Daily Mail)

Rather than share how William is preparing for his role as Prince of Wales and taking over the Duchy of Cornwall, we heard from William’s nearest and dearest about how his brother has been “sucked into an alien world [in California]. . . and there's f*** all [William] can do about it.”

And it looks like you’ll have to wait for his 41st if you want to discover how William transformed from a reluctant heir to a dutiful king-in-waiting, because sources were too busy dishing on how he “alternates between grief and anger” over Harry’s life decisions.

Prince William is understood to be spending his 40th birthday privately with his family. (PA)
Prince William is understood to be spending his 40th birthday privately with his family. (PA)

It’s true that the situation between the brothers continues to be grave, but I can’t help but feel this assortment of sanctioned mouthpieces are doing William a huge disservice here. “William is absolutely allergic to drama,” one close friend proudly told the newspaper. . . while ranting about the Duke of Sussex. Could have fooled me!

From a PR perspective, Prince William’s birthday milestone was the perfect chance to paint the picture of a man focused on preparing for the big job. After all, he has been genuinely putting the work in. But instead, readers were presented with the hypocritical story of how awful it is for Harry to speak publicly about his experiences… told via Kensington Palace sources appearing to share the private and personal opinions of William to Britain’s most-read tabloid.

After April’s failed Caribbean tour, William’s senior staff rushed to brief royal reporters that he plans to phase out the family’s “never complain never explain” mantra when he becomes king as it leaves no room for accountability when mistakes are made. That outdated rule absolutely does need to go, but starting the process with leaked tales of family fractures you once criticised someone else for sharing probably isn’t the best way of going about it.