The attacks by Prince Harry are no longer simply tittle-tattle or private family business. What Harry has done is to take the deep hurt he suffered as a boy, and his ferocious rivalry with his older brother and the heir to the throne, Prince William, and shape them into an institutional crisis. This is everything King Charles most feared, everything the late Queen Elizabeth struggled against – the individual before the institution, self before duty. It’s the best news for republicans in my lifetime.
By now, we feel we know Harry in a way we don’t know his father, brother or stepmother. In his television interviews – one conducted particularly well by Tom Bradby for ITV – he comes across as a composed, focused man, perhaps sharper than we had expected but also carrying a significant amount of anger. The more he proclaims his happiness, the less we believe it.
Whatever your view, there is one area in which he is plainly right and deserves a proper and more honest response than he’s ever going to get, and that’s the role of the media in the death of his mother, Princess Diana, and the destruction of his happiness.
It was hard to watch his account of how the paparazzi ghouls behaved around the crumpled wreck of the Mercedes-Benz in which his mother died in Paris in August 1997, peering and snapping, rather than helping her as she lay in agony, bleeding and trapped in the wreckage of the vehicle. This horror came after years of press intrusion on private family holidays, of Harry and William being unable to walk anywhere in public without lenses and false-friendly bellows of their names. Are they paranoid? Yes: so would you be.
It’s no good, by the way, saying that these were foreign photographers or that, more generally, modern monarchy relies on its media profile. The paparazzi were there because they were paid well for the photographs by newspaper editors who knew, or thought they knew, what the rest of us wanted to see. While the British monarchy has always displayed itself, albeit on its own terms, to the loyal unwashed, neither Henry VIII, nor Queen Victoria, nor even the dull ones, would have lasted a minute in the technologically intrusive, super-fast world of the modern media.
[See also: Prince Harry’s Spare is a deeply uncomfortable read]
Harry’s anger is about, of course, more than photographers. His central case is that senior royals – including but not limited to Camilla, the Queen Consort – have been, well, consorting with the tabloids and other journalists to twist the narrative in their own favour, if necessary by colluding in personal attacks on Harry and his wife Meghan.
I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve met William and Harry and most of the family, but I don’t know them and I’m not part of the closed circle of royal correspondents. But, like everyone else, I can read the papers, observe the gurgling, giggling torrent of sexist and racist filth dumped on the Californian exiles, and imagine the effect it has.
“Who told them that?… But there were only three of us there!” Either well-known journalists are making a lot of stuff up, just sitting at their laptops at the kitchen table inventing the detail of feuds and private confrontations; or a particularly confidence-rotting form of anonymous briefing has been taking place.
If it’s the latter, it is strikingly similar to the way the old, unreformed Downing Street lobby system used to work. The prime minister’s press spokesperson – speaking anonymously – used to meet each day with a closed group of reporters with special passes to answer questions and, if necessary, trash the reputations of other politicians, including members of the cabinet. There was no come-back. Lobby journalists were not allowed to discuss anything that had been said with non-lobby reporters and could loftily imply to their editors that they had dropped in on the prime minister in person for a sherry that morning.
There were plenty of bold, courageous, scoop-getting reporters as well: it wasn’t an entirely successful conspiracy. But for decades it allowed a tight circle of people, working unattributably at the centre of power, to shape the political narrative relatively effectively. If “the lobby” itself was too large to be trusted there was an inner-inner group called, in those sinful days, the White Commonwealth.
There are still briefings. But they are pinned to the institution, the briefers speak openly and directly on behalf of the prime minister, and so there is proper accountability at Westminster. But this is not true around the court of Windsor. Everyone has arguments and bad times. Imagine if every time you had sharp words with your near family you later read an inflamed account of what had just happened in the Sun. Imagine the suspicion.
This is what we do to the royal family and, if it doesn’t stop, it will finish the institution. What Harry calls “the antagonist”, an evil octopus of press power, has, in his view, slithered its way deep into his family.
To antagonise the antagonist, he has spilled all the beans – well, almost all the beans – himself. The privacy campaigner has turned the tables by becoming exhibitioner-in-chief. If he can’t trust them, then from now on, they can’t trust him. But he has done this as a bellow of outrage about a system which is outrageous. He deserves to be heard. I am pretty sure he won’t be.
Despite his intelligence, affability and his strong case, Harry is deluded. He claims to be a monarchist and does not, apparently, realise what he is doing to the institution. But if what he says about Camilla, William and his father is true, then many of us will want nothing to do with them. He claims to love them. But he portrays them as psychologically damaged, deeply ambitious and untrustworthy schemers. He forces the public to take sides. He thinks he can separate “telling his own truth” from a public assault on the institution to which he still vaguely belongs. He can’t. He says silence is complicity. Maybe. But then, speaking out is aggression. He says he wants reconciliation. After this, that’s impossible.
Harry points out that “there are two sides to a story”. (In truth, very often there are many more.) But although we have seen the tabloid attacks on him, we haven’t heard the other side from William or Camilla or even King Charles. Harry has expressed his feelings. They have not. There’s a great imbalance.
Harry has assembled his own media operation to take on the octopus. He exercises near complete control over the publisher of his book, the makers of the Netflix documentaries, and the journalists (Bradby is an old chum) for the television interviews. This is self-publishing on steroids. It wouldn’t work for most of us but if you are Harry, or any other very famous person, it’s highly effective. The old media follow.
So, we might ask: if senior royals, or their courtiers, are dropping quiet words in the ears of tabloid journalists in order to get their point across, apart from behaving badly, are they simply out of date? If you are trying to settle your opinion about Harry against William, what is more effective: a series of splashy pages on rough newsprint, or their own words, in their own voice?
We know the answer. But we also know – as do the Windsors – that however big the impact of a television interview, it isn’t repeated every day and so its impact diminishes while the Daily Mail, for instance, is published every day.
[See also: Prince Harry’s ITV interview revealed more about posh British men than the tabloids or the royals]
Will Charles and William respond openly so that the rest of us can hear how they deal with the charges? It’s as likely as the octopus looking in the mirror and deciding to transform itself into a multicoloured shoal of shiny herbivorous fish. In the end, does any of it matter? If I never hear another word about Harry’s buttocks or todger, it will be too soon. At that level I don’t believe New Statesman readers give the proverbial monkey’s.
But the monarchy does matter. It has not only been a source of continuity and “service” but functions as the apex of a class system based, long before the Industrial Revolution, on land and bloodline, and policed by quietly ruthless distinctions of voice and behaviour. It is how we are seen around the world, the single biggest element of British distinctiveness. It still gives emotional nourishment to millions who find it brings warmth and pleasure in a chilly, comfortless age.
Harry’s broadsides alone will not end the British monarchy. But they certainly weaken and damage it; and if the royals don’t respond, or do so intemperately, the damage will be deep. What does that mean? Less public support, particularly among younger Britons; less readiness to pay up; more shrivel.
Genuine monarchists feel an attack on the monarchy as a personal, intimate affront, one that hurts more when it comes from a wealthy, self-important, narcissistic American liberal culture, which already overshadows Britain. The tabloid press understands this, which is why it has been attacking Harry so vigorously. The octopus may do wicked things, but the octopus has its values.
As for the rest of us, some may feel that the nostalgia and the glory that the monarchy brings are worth the snobbery, social conservatism and deference. Others will say, “No, we’re a country which needs a modernisation shock; we need to move on from British exceptionalism, and the end of the monarchy may be part of that.” (As readers may have noticed, I am ambiguous but feel myself sliding in that direction.) At any rate, in the long struggle between natural Cavaliers and natural Cromwellians, what Harry has done wrenches the dial. For him, naturally, it’s about him. And it is. And it isn’t.
This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor