Roughly two decades ago, Fleet Street’s most powerful editors joined a Buckingham Palace birthday party, carrying invites that Prince Harry would see as a perk of the “invisible contract” between the royal family and their tabloid tormentors.
Prince Philip genially approached the newsmen standing in a corner — a group that included Piers Morgan of the Daily Mirror, the Sun’s David Yelland and Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail — then, when he discovered their profession, immediately turned on his heel.
“God, you just can’t tell from the outside, can you?” the Duke of Edinburgh grumbled to an aide as he walked away.
The episode at the drinks party captured the uneasy, forced and at times spectacularly dysfunctional accommodation between the royal family and Britain’s tabloid press — “the game” that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle have so publicly repudiated.
During their interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex cast that “invisible contract” as close to a Faustian bargain, which royals accept for fear of tabloids “turning on them”. “If you . . . wine, dine and give full access to these reporters, then you will get a better press,” said Prince Harry.
Yelland, who left the Sun in 2003 and now runs a communications agency, sees it as a far less cosy arrangement.
“There is no conspiracy. Both sides have complete contempt for each other,” he said, while noting the royals must routinely put up with “made up stories and cruel opinion. But the press and the royals need each other.”
For most of the House of Windsor’s reign in Britain, the family enjoyed regal privacy, at least in terms of the press. There was even reluctance to allow television cameras into Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.
All that changed with the editorial revolution Rupert Murdoch brought to Fleet Street in the 1960s, which exploited public interest in the private lives of royals, and its commercial potential. The Windsors became the most intensely covered family in the world.
Tabloid editors say the days of royal pictures and stories driving up print sales are long gone (the Daily Express ran 47 front page stories on Diana, Princess of Wales in 2006 alone, almost a decade after her death).
But royal drama still draws big audiences. The Winfrey broadcast on CBS reached 17.1m, and 11.1m on ITV in the UK. On Wednesday morning the Mail Online homepage had 20 separate stories on the Sussexes’ interview.
Former courtiers say Prince Harry’s hatred of the press is understandable and not unique in the family. But at times it can be “totally overwhelming”.
He blames tabloids for hounding his mother relentlessly, even in her final moments. Reporters hacked his phone, convinced army comrades at Sandhurst to betray him for cash and turned his rakish transgressions into national scandals.
Then, between waves of positive coverage, they attacked the Californian actress who became his wife. Soon after the couple began dating in 2016, Prince Harry issued a statement lambasting the “smears” and “racial undertones” in coverage, and the “bribes” offered to Markle’s ex-boyfriend.
“This is not a game — it is her life,” the statement said. More drastic steps followed — including a successful legal suit against the Mail on Sunday — but little changed. The emotional toll was plain to see in their Winfrey interview.
Will this latest plea for change make a difference? One of Harry’s biggest bugbears is the “royal rota”, the self-governing club for royal correspondents that has operated since the 1970s.
Under terms agreed with the Palace, the rota typically sends a reporter, broadcaster and photographer to taxpayer funded engagements and then pools the exclusive output to rota members.
But to Harry’s frustration, the pact gives the royals no power to choose who covers public events.
“Harry thought the whole system was absurd and unhealthy,” said one person who has discussed it with him. “He hated the idea the royals would feed them stuff, and the tabloids would turn around and bite their hands.”
The compromises seemed even more mystifying to Markle, who was used to Hollywood’s controlled and selective publicity style. Tellingly, soon after breaking from royal duties last year, the Sussexes stopped co-operating with the Mail, Sun, Mirror and Express titles, refusing to “offer themselves up as currency for an economy of click bait and distortion”. At the same time they stepped up their use of social media channels to communicate directly with the public.
Lack of access did little to temper coverage. To Yelland, who admits one big mistake at the Sun was printing topless photographs of the Countess of Wessex, a more important factor is public opinion — the third party in the “invisible contract”.
“As an editor you can only go so far. If you run stories the public don’t like — and I have direct experience of this — you get demolished,” he said. “There is an invisible contract. Nobody tells you what it is, but you’d better get it right.”
The Sussexes interview has arguably polarised UK opinion on the royals in a way not seen since the Diana era — creating problems for journalists and the family alike.
Morgan, baiter-in-chief of Markle, has already lost his job presenting ITV’s morning show. After saying he “didn’t believe a word” of Markle’s interview, he was upbraided by a fellow presenter, then walked off set. His on-air comments drew 41,000 complaints to Ofcom, the media regulator.
Meanwhile, the UK newspaper industry group the Society of Editors had to cope with a board mutiny after its executive director Ian Murray said it was “not acceptable” for Markle to say the press incited racism. After 200 journalists and editors of newspapers including the Guardian and the Financial Times objected, the board acknowledged his statement “did not reflect what we all know”.
The Sussexes’ bid to revolutionise journalism stands in stark contrast to how other royals — notably Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall — dealt with a hostile press.
Camilla endured headlines denouncing her as the marriage-breaking “Rottweiler”, and (false) press accounts of being pelted with buns in a Sainsbury’s car park in Chippenham. Her children recall using binoculars each morning to spot paparazzi, hidden in the bushes, from the flash of the sun on their camera lenses.
Like Markle, the Duchess gave a lengthy interview about the “horrid” coverage that left her desperate and trapped at home — but she gave it to the Mail on Sunday and its then editor Geordie Greig. It was the culmination of a long strategy to win over the Mail.
Camilla is today patron of the Guild of St Bride, the “journalists’ church” on Fleet Street, “a spiritual home to all who work in media”.
“Camilla is different. She knows the name of every [royal] reporter, she knows about their children,” said Penny Junor, the Duchess’s biographer. “As a result they love her. She was a most unpopular woman, vilified . . . She turned it around, just by being nice to the people reporting on her.”
Although he shares his brother’s antipathy towards the press, Prince William has taken an approach more like his stepmother’s, laced with clever use of social media. As Diana once shrewdly observed, while royal firstborns “may get all the glory”, the second-born “enjoy more freedom”.