Reinventing the Royals: spin in the house of Windsor

Steve Hewlett reveals how “The Firm” used spin doctors to fight back after the death of Diana – but are the Windsors ready for the modern age?

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Because of the issues that forced a schedule change for Reinventing the Royals, this article originally appeared in the 3rd-9th January edition of Radio Times

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The royal family – and the institution of monarchy that it represents – sits at the very pinnacle of British politics and society. And yet because the royals have no power they are almost uniquely dependent on what we, the public, think about them. Which means, like it or not, their relationship with the media, between the first family and the fourth estate, is vital to the standing of the entire institution.

And as the Queen gets older and succession hoves into view, it’s a relationship that really couldn’t be more critical. Currently the family appears to be riding high. William, Kate, Harry and now Prince George look for all the world like a new monarchy for a new age. Prince Charles is now safely married to Camilla, and the Queen is as popular as ever. And, to cap it all, the British press and media appear to be on their most respectful, best behaviour.

Which, when you think back to the way things were 20 years ago, with the very public breakdown of Prince Charles’s marriage to Princess Diana and her tragic death in 1997, marks quite a turnaround in fortunes.

Back then the press ran riot. Invasions of privacy were outrageous and routine, but were fuelled by relentless briefing and counter-briefing from both sides. As Jenny Bond, the BBC’s former royal correspondent, says, “They were leaking like sieves and singing like canaries.” The traditional royal press mantra – stick to “public” duties and avoid “private” personal and family matters, and “never complain, never explain”, were left for dead by the so-called “war of the Waleses”. They were crazy times. 

And then tragedy struck. Diana’s death in a car crash in a Paris underpass pursued by paparazzi on motorbikes set off a chain of events that brought both the royal family and their press tormentors to a point of genuine crisis.

The public reaction to Diana’s death was unprecedented; at first the public appeared to turn on the royal family – on holiday in Balmoral at the time – and even the Queen was criticised for failing to share the nation’s immense sense of loss. The situation was probably more serious than the family realised.

Giving her first-ever television interview in this week’s programme, Sandy Henney, then press secretary to Prince Charles and in London at the time, says, “I remember briefing one of our private secretaries on the phone saying, ‘I know you’re seeing this on television but you really have to be here to feel the atmosphere. The people here are really anti-monarchy.’ I was really worried about where it was going to go.”

The press, too, was on the ropes. As the Queen returned to London, public sympathy for the two young bereaved princes turned opinion decisively against the press for their role in the tragedy. As Lord (Guy) Black, then director of the Press Complaints Commission, says, “The press was sitting there in the dock in the court of public opinion accused literally of murdering the princess. The clock was ticking. The press at that point was looking over the precipice into a fully fledged, deeply repressive privacy law.”

Steve Hewlett

In the weeks that followed the press rewrote its “Editors’ Code”, narrowly avoided the government intervention journalists feared and went on to agree to a series of deals to protect William and Harry from media intrusion.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles – the heir to the throne – was left, after a decade of more or less open warfare with his now deceased ex-wife, with his public image in tatters. As Sandy Henney says, “When I joined his office in 1993 he was getting some pretty virulent criticism – bad father, unloving husband. I think he was pretty hurt… if you’ve got a middle-aged balding man and a beautiful princess, it’s a no-brainer as to who is going to get the media coverage.”

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Charles urgently needed a “new narrative”, as they say in professional PR circles, and to that end had already hired an entirely new sort of royal media manager – a spin doctor. Mark Bolland was brought in from the Press Complaints Commission, where he preceded Lord Black as director.