First family versus fourth estate: the new royal rules

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A BBC television series, Reinventing the Royals, sheds new light on the monarchy's relations with the media since the breakdown of Prince Charles's marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales. It predicts that this relationship will become more complex in the fast-moving world of ubiquitous cameras and social media.

The programme is presented by Steve Hewlett, the former editor of BBC Panorama, who has reported widely on the phone hacking scandal in which celebrities, victims of crimes - and royals - had their phones hacked by News of the World. He has followed the ups and downs in the relationship between the media and the royals closely.

"It got me thinking about how the monarchy functions. How does it work as an institution? It has to be above politics; it doesn't have anything representing actual power. And yet, to be effective, we [the people] all have to buy into the idea of it.

"And, as such, their relationship with the media is absolutely central to their purpose and to the institution they represent."

Arthur Edwards, the Sun newspaper's veteran royal photographer, who has followed the Royal Family for 40 years, says: "I think they've got unbelievable privilege and that comes at a cost. And the cost is, of course, they're always in this electronic goldfish bowl."

Charles's former press secretary Sandy Henney
Image caption Charles's former press secretary Sandy Henney is interviewed on television for the first time

The first episode in the series examines the public relations crisis which followed the death of Diana in August 1997.

Press reporting of the decade-long breakdown of Charles and Diana's marriage - the so-called "War of the Waleses" - saw what royal biographer Penny Junor calls "a complete feast for the tabloid press... The press lost its moral compass."

But Diana's death, amid allegations that she had been hounded, saw newspapers "sitting in the court of public opinion, looking over the precipice at a full blown press privacy law", says Guy Black, a former director of the Press Complaints Commission.

The press introduced new rules: paparazzi-style shots were out; there was a new definition of private space to include anywhere individuals might have a reasonable expectation of privacy; and new rules for reporting on young royals.

'Flesh and blood'

Robert Jobson, royal editor at the Evening Standard, says the rules changed the press's behaviour.

"It's certainly less free than when I started doing the job in the early 90s where, really, it was the media that saw the story, wrote the story, ran the agenda and, really, were not controlled in any way."

In a complete break from the tradition of "never complain, never explain and get on with the job", both Charles's and Diana's "advisers" gave background briefings to the press. Many commentators believed that Diana's side was succeeding in winning the PR war.

As Charles's former press secretary Sandy Henney - interviewed on television for the first time - puts it: "If you've got a middle-aged, balding man and an incredibly beautiful princess, it's a no-brainer as to who's going to get the media coverage."

By 1996 Charles had begun to fight back. He hired Mark Bolland - the openly gay, comprehensive-schooled director of the Press Complaints Commission - to run his press operation: to build a new image, of Charles as a caring single father. Bolland was largely successful.

But Diana's death put the issue into even sharper focus.

Steve Hewlett
Image caption The series is presented by Steve Hewlett

Charles Rae, royal correspondent with The Sun from 1995 to 2002, explains: "Mark Bolland's main role was to make Camilla [Parker-Bowles] more presentable. Because, by then, Charles had made it clear that she was non-negotiable. So she had to be part of his life in the future."

Indeed, Bolland's PR campaign - known as Operation Mrs PB - was so successful that Charles and Camilla, buoyed by a good deal of public goodwill, married in April 2005.

In the second part of the series, Hewlett gives a sense of how Prince William is beginning to fashion his style of monarchy, with a clearly-drawn line between public duties and private life.

"William and Harry appear to be entirely relaxed in a multimedia age," he explains. "They are better adapted to it than their predecessors. They are relaxed. They get it. On the other hand, they are somewhat more reserved about it.

"They accept public duties and the need to have a public presence. But they want a private life that's completely private. In the era of social media, the internet, smartphones with cameras, the old rules are up the creek."

While making the films Hewlett spoke to many people who have worked for the royal communications operations, many of whom spoke off the record.

"One thing they all said was 'you keep having to remind yourself that they are a family, that they're all flesh and blood'. And that, of course, has always to be factored in when trying to analyse or understand their behaviour."

Reinventing the Royals is on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Thursday 19 and 26 February or catch-up via BBC iPlayer

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