A potted history of media deference

The ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between editors and royals about Harry’s stint in Afghanistan is not the first time the media have bowed and scraped before royalty.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Free Speech

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The backroom deal – or ‘gentleman’s agreement’ – between the royals and the British media over Prince Harry’s deployment in Afghanistan is said to be unprecedented. In defending their capitulation – whether willingly or reluctantly – some journalists have implied that such a blanket-ban by all editors was exceptional. Of course, there is much about the prince-and-the-war PR stunt that is new and worrying. But it is important to recognise that censorious deals between editors and the royal family have been taking place for decades.

When Prince William and Prince Harry were children, there was an unwritten agreement that the media would take a hands-off approach. No reports of their presumable tantrums or illnesses ever got out. Even details of the adult Prince William’s life at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and the girlfriends he met there, were not widely reported until after he finished his higher education; the media agreed, under pressure from royal press secretaries, to stay away from the university.

Bizarrely, the only media organisation that did ‘invade’ William’s privacy during his college years was his uncle’s production company. When Prince Edward’s Ardent Productions was accused of trying to film William at university, a huge row broke out over the fact that Ardent was blatantly breaching an ‘understanding’ between the Windsors and the media to leave William alone. Ardent had to hand its footage over to Buckingham Palace (1). To this day, it is extremely rare to see any photos taken while William was at St Andrews – the media obediently stayed clear.

More recently, just before Prince William and his girlfriend Kate Middleton split up last spring, Middleton called in lawyers to complain about a photograph published in the Daily Mirror. She said it had been obtained by ‘harassment’. Yet that photograph was an exception. Only two months previously, many of the major newspapers and Hello! magazine had agreed to stop using paparazzi pictures of Middleton following a ‘last warning’ letter from her lawyers (2).

You may think that the private life of young royals and their girlfriends are not in the public interest, and are irrelevant and small fry in terms of other, more interesting stories about the monarchy – such as the question of why it continues to exist and what its existence allows Britain’s prime ministers to get away with in terms of usurping the democratic process. I agree. But the media did not stay away from St Andrews or stop publishing pics of Middleton because it suddenly decided that royal-celebrity culture was dull; it did so after reaching voluntary and semi-voluntary agreements with the royals and their lawyers about what journalists should and should not be allowed to cover.

Although some stories about Princes William and Harry’s lives and affairs have been published – most notably by the News of the World, which famously published private text messages about the princes’ love lives (3) – there has also been a ‘sensitive approach’ in media outlets for some time. This sensitivity was forged in the post-Diana era.

In 1997, following Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris, the press solidified a culture of uneasy restraint on matters related to the royals’ public and private lives. It still publishes titillating stories and pictures of princes staggering drunkenly from nightclubs, of course, but it also holds back from overtly ‘upsetting’ the royals and it gives the nod to gentleman’s agreements about royals attending university or fighting in wars. The notion that Diana was ‘done in’ by paparazzi chasing her on motorbikes – despite a recent Channel 4 documentary which showed further evidence that the paparazzi actually did right on that night, and tried to help the dying princess and the other passengers (4) – the notion that royals can feel ‘harassed’ by intrusions into their privacy, which can include instances when they are walking and driving in public, has been accepted by large sections of the media. Where state gags on media coverage of royals’ private lives during the past 50-plus years are criticised as censorious, today’s lighter-touch self-censorship goes largely unquestioned.

There has also been a rather old-fashioned element to the Harry blackout story. One of the justifications for the ban is that it was necessary to protect the prince’s security in Afghanistan, and the security of the other soldiers serving alongside him (see The phoney war over Harry of Afghanistan, by Mick Hume). In the past, gentleman’s agreements between the royals and the media were justified under the banner of ‘national security’. There is a long history of self-censorship by the media in the name of ‘protecting security’ and showing ‘due reference’ to the House of Windsor.

In the first part of the twentieth century, press deference to the royals was a widely accepted fact of life. For example, Edward VIII’s affair with the American divorcee Mrs Wallace Simpson went unreported in Britain, even though reports of her divorce and fling with the King were published in the American press. Details of the affair only became public when the situation forced the 1936 Abdication Crisis. The British people were kept in the dark by the media about both the King’s affair and his impending abdication, and were permitted only to see happy images of a cosy royal family (5).

A photographer called Ray Bellisario tried to challenge the culture of deference in the 1960s. When I interviewed Bellisario in 1998 for LM magazine (6), he described his experiences as a young photographer covering the fashionable Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. They ‘loved being photographed in their evening gowns and tiaras’, he said, but when he dared to photograph Margaret in a swimsuit in 1964 he was roundly denounced. The photographer Lord Snowdon, who was married to Princess Margaret, later described Bellisario as a ‘wicked man’ who was ‘out to terrorise’. Palace officials sought physically to exclude him from official royal press circles, and the Queen’s press secretary accused him of ‘lying and abusing palace hospitality’.

This photo by Ray Bellisario
shows the Queen meeting with
the Duke of Windsor, despite
palace denials that she had done
so. First published in Britain in
LM magazine in September 1998.

Bellisario was told to stop taking photographs of the royals, not only at royal occasions, but in public places too. But he continued snapping. Why? ‘Bellisario comes from the Latin meaning belligerent or war-like’, he told LM in 1998. ‘You can’t let [palace officials] push somebody in my position around.’ He was denounced as a ‘pap’, but one of his photos is politically quite important. Using a long-range lens, he snapped the Queen walking with her uncle the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII, the abdicated King) in the grounds of Buckingham Palace in the late Sixties. The photo revealed that, despite repeated palace denials that the Queen had met with the Duke, officially an outcast from royal circles at that time, she had indeed entertained him. Bellisario’s photo was first published in Britain in 1998 by LM magazine, 30 years after it was taken. No other media outlet would touch it.

Whatever the justification, backroom deals with royalty are bad for all of us. Whether it’s old-fashioned heavy-handed censorship, or new-fangled respect for royals’ feelings, or a desire by the media and the royals to carry out a delayed PR stunt showing a prince at war, these deals curtail the free press and allow truth and investigation to be sidelined by deference and sensitivity.

Tessa Mayes is a media commentator, journalist and author. Email Tessa {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes defended a Princess Diana documentary on the basis of press freedom, and stood up for the right to photograph and write about public figures – including Prince William’s girlfriend. She also looked at how Princess Caroline of Monaco used the EU to defend her privacy. Elsewhere, Josie Appleton asserted the importance of privacy. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Edward hands over ‘William film’, BBC News, 1 October 2001

(2) Harassing the paparazzi, by Tessa Mayes, 2 April 2007

(3) More news from the world please, by Tessa Mayes, 1 December 2006

(4) Seeing the Diana crash through a new lens, by Tessa Mayes, 11 June 2007

(5) Royalty vs the Pursuing Press, Time magazine, 28 February 1983

(6) Interview with Ray Bellisario by Tessa Mayes for LM magazine in 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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