Why didn’t they listen? Almost two years ago, when our newspapers threatened to explode with impotent fury every time Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, said anything, we suggested the press should simply ignore them. They are doing it to get attention, we said. Don’t look at them and they will stop. Our advice was sound on health grounds – that rise in blood pressure is good for no one – but would have left editors short of copy and robbed us of great ironies: the irony of a newspaper industry willing a prince to disappear while promoting his words to millions; the irony of a prince moaning about privacy while exposing his innermost thoughts.
Only the most po-faced – perhaps those who rushed to buy The Independent when it launched in 1986 with a promise not to write about royals – can fail to have enjoyed the frenzy that surrounded the launch of Spare, Harry’s ghost-written autobiography. We liked the chutzpah of commercial publishers complaining about a book written for money. We admired the optimism of reporters who suggested the celebrity of the couple was in decline even as the Guinness Book of Records reported that first-day sales of 1.4million made Spare the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time. We wondered how many different words the why-oh-why columnists could find to condemn him.
But our joy in the rough and tumble of the popular press as it mobilised to disparage the author should not blind us to what went on for so many years, the exposure of which is the principal purpose of the prince’s book. The papers’ need to rubbish him went beyond any patriotic desire to protect the British monarchy. It was to protect themselves from the truths that Spare reveals about their industry, its tricks and its ambivalent relationship with monarchy.
We don’t have to admire Harry, can be nauseated by his sense of entitlement, bewildered by his surprise that older siblings get better rooms, and amused that he presents the old saws of the self-help industry as new insights. Yet we should acknowledge that he has a case. What we heard from newspapers was the definition of “whataboutery” – responding to difficult questions with counter accusations. That the prince’s late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, played media games, that Buckingham Palace was involved in meddling, that the prince was indeed a drug-user – none of these justifies the historic behaviour of sections of the media.
Is it historic? Well, papers are undoubtedly behaving more cautiously, though as Sir Alan Moses observed when he was the first director of the reformulated self-regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation, behaviour goes in cycles. Surely, he asked some years ago, we couldn’t go on with periodic outbreaks of outrageous conduct. Or, he suggested, perhaps we could. This journal, with some divergence of views on the editorial board, agrees, believing there is enough law already. Having escaped the Leveson Inquiry without regulation – and avoided any second leg of the inquiry – the industry must hope that tougher sanctions on media are unlikely to be the priority of any incoming Labour government. They could feel more secure in that view if claims about phone-hacking were not still grinding their way through the legal process.
How can they demonstrate good behaviour? By playing the patriotic card. British newspapers have long understood the value of monarchy, despite delivering stories that nearly brought it down. How useful now to protect the “good” royals with a warm blanket of sycophantic coverage that plays to traditional readers. As the coronation approaches, papers fawn at the feet of the King and two generations of his heirs, lunge at the throat of his annoying second son. The Princess of Wales grows more beautiful and more dutiful by the day, a walking reproach to the American bride of her brother-in-law. She and her husband bring joy to every visit. It’s a charming picture for an ageing readership, but we are not sure it will attract a younger generation that takes a more sympathetic view of Harry and his wife.