Behind the royal PR scenes

Less than two months to the royal wedding, which, no doubt, will also be the occasion of a less than harmonious match between royalty and media.

I was given a privileged insight into that relationship at one of oldest universities, where, under Chatham House rules, a select group of us heard a former senior royal functionary and a former senior member of the BBC swap thoughts on matters royal and broadcasting. Without breaking the confidences I’d promised to keep, here’s what they were saying: The Windsors learned much from the death of Diana (below) in 1997. They were way out of touch with the people – ‘the ultimate court of public opinion’, the man from the palace called it – and had to be argued round by then Prime Minister Blair: “The film, The Queen was right. I remember talking to the writer”.  Writes John Mair…

Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry at Princess Diana's funeralOur royal insider felt that Prince Charles was constrained in what he could do at the time by his position; and his mother was over-worried and over-protective of her grandsons, William and  Harry. She was also stuck in a Scottish castle.

In the end, the Firm, as they call it, pulled the PR rabbit out of the hat and saved the monarchy – just in time. But they still had to be dragged screaming into the public limelight and to smell the public mood.

As he put it “if you don’t control the news story, it will control you.” Our  functionary also blamed the tabloid press which, in his view, was whipping up a storm over half-mast flags at the palace to create a fog around the responsibility of the paparazzi – their paparazzi – for the death of Diana.

But the former senior BBC staffer admitted the Corporation had been surprised and wrong too. Surprised that no obituary existed of Diana, and wrong in maintaining the narrative of ‘death by paparazzi’ once the blood test had shown the driver Henri Paul to be blind drunk.

Our men at the Palace and BH also pointed up the Horlicks the BBC had made of the death of the Queen Mother in 2002: “we rehearsed it 27 times and when it happened, we got it wrong!” Relations between Buck House and the BBC took some time to recover from that one.

What of 2011? The PR is much better. The tension is less – though Prince William now ensures the hacks stay in line with the help of a fierce media lawyer (“the best in London”) and the Press Complaints Commission.

He’s learned the lessons of how the press built his mother up only to knock her down. He seems determined they will not do the same with Katherine – as the current royal spin-doctors call her. Her path to Queen Kate will be less strewn with mines set by the media than was Diana’s. They hope.

John Mair teaches journalism at Coventry University.

Many Thanks to the BBC College of Journalism.


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