It was impossible to watch Prince Harry evoke emotional feelings for interviewer Tom Bradby for more than an hour and 40 minutes. It was impossible not to feel compassion.
Happy Valley was on BBC1 on Sunday night, while Unhappy Harry sat on ITV, talking in a pleasant room in his spacious California home about his life’s work of curbing the British press, a crusade he was convinced the whole world was sharing would. But how?
It’s easy to see why the Duke of Sussex has a resentment towards British newspapers, although he doesn’t seem to extend it to all other forms of media that permeate the world’s news, nor does he differentiate between news reporting and columnists. opinionated – which, as with Jeremy Clarkson recently, can be grossly offensive. Nor does he consider that the crowds flocking to royal events – and which will fill the streets outside Westminster Abbey and along Whitehall and the Mall when his father is crowned in May – include many of the readers of those newspapers, whom he so despised.
They are the ones who want to read the royal news and gossip; if the media didn’t deliver and feed their enthusiasm, the institution would wither away. As a self-confessed supporter of the monarchy, Harry probably doesn’t want that.
All kings throughout history have had to show themselves to their subjects to prove they are still around. As Lord Salisbury, later Prime Minister, wrote in the Saturday Review in 1871, when Queen Victoria buried herself a decade after Prince Albert’s death – and thereby lost public support: “Seclusion is one of the few luxuries that royals are not allowed to indulge. Loyalty takes a lifetime of almost uninterrupted publicity to sustain it.” The crowd, it said, “want the gilding for their money.” As Harry’s late grandmother used to say, “We must be seen to be believed.”
It’s understandable that Harry is scarred for life by what happened to his mother. Some of what the tabloids did in the 1980s and 1990s, in an era of insane commercial competition, was frankly deplorable.
But on the whole the British press has been more reserved in recent years, partly because of this experience. The paparazzi are still with us, but their market these days is continental and American – many of the headlines featured in the recent Netflix documentary came from US supermarket tabloids, and numerous photographers’ photos were taken by others, non- royal events recorded on other occasions.
Harry was simply wrong when he told Bradby that his mother’s death after a car accident in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in 1997 was directly caused by the paparazzi. They were actually following the Mercedes limousine in which Diana, Princess of Wales and her companion Dodi Fayed were traveling at high speed, but they were some distance behind them on motor scooters. The main reason for her death was that chauffeur Henri Paul was intoxicated with drugs and alcohol and had not expected to work that day until his employer, Dodi’s father Mohamed Al Fayed, ordered him to drive the couple around Paris in a high-performance car, which he had no experience driving. Diana might have survived if she had worn her seat belt.
I was then the European Affairs Editor of the Guardian in Brussels and was ordered to Paris that morning on the first train to help with the paper’s coverage. When I took a taxi from the Gare du Nord to the French capital’s Guardian offices, the driver told me: ‘Only an idiot drives into that tunnel at that speed. It has a bend and a difficult camber. He must have been mad.” Five hours after the accident, a Parisian taxi driver knew what a decade later would take eight months for a British inquiry (which I also reported on) to decide. If Harry’s remarks in the ITV interview sparked a new wave of conspiracy theories, he will have done his mother’s memory a disservice.
Is Buckingham Palace leaking harmful stories? Well, there was a brief period 20 years ago when Harry’s beloved father allowed his advisor, Mark Bolland, to aggressively advocate for Camilla’s rehabilitation, but in general it’s difficult to glean more than the most benign information from palace sources. You can’t just call King Charles or Prince William for a frank conversation, official or confidential.
The tabloids are indeed covering the royals extensively, and actually they get their coverage right most of the time. They were the ones who first noticed the rift between Charles and Diana and indeed between the two brothers following Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle – both important stories and true beyond that.
Would Harry rather return to the homage of the press in the 1930s, when it didn’t cover the budding love affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson until all but a fait accompli? The lessons of this experience are that deference doesn’t work when a real crisis is brewing, and even then the story circulated around the world while the British remained ignorant.
Harry doesn’t seem able to discern those nuances as he slides back into the spotlight. He seems to want public apologies and reconciliation while striving to reach them in the least likely way. He will probably be able to play victim by then. But how many more times will he make it?
Stephen Bates has covered the royals for The Guardian for 12 years. His books include Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand and The Shortest History of the Crown