Dr Edward Owens, author of ‘The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and British Public, 1932-53’, reflects on the current relationship between the British royal family and the press.

Prince Harry has done something extraordinary. He has loudly and emotionally condemned some of Britain’s leading newspapers for the way the intrusive coverage of their journalists has impacted on his family. But his public statement on the media was only Act One. Now he has begun legal proceedings that will see him take on News Group Newspapers (publisher of The Sun and the defunct News of the World) and Reach (publisher of the Mirror newspapers) in the courts in order to sue them for damages pertaining to historic cases of alleged phone-hacking.

The prince has set himself on a collision course with the press and his no-nonsense approach has surprised royal experts and members of his own family. Historically speaking, the House of Windsor have preferred to play ostrich when their private lives have become the focus of tabloid gossip. The prevailing view has been that it is better to bury one’s head in the sand and say nothing than pass comment on scurrilous news stories, which might in turn lend them a legitimacy and run the risk of further unwanted scrutiny.

However, the Duke of Sussex is cut from a different ermine-lined cloth to that of his relatives. Since his marriage to the actress Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, the prince has proven determined to be the royal who resets the relationship between the Windsors and the press – in favour of greater privacy.

The problem Harry faces is that royal commentators tend to view his attitude to the media as hypocritical. He and the duchess have readily stepped into the limelight in order to boost their profiles as environmentalists and as advocates of gender equality and mental health awareness (to name just a few of their causes). But the couple’s shunning of photographers and reporters when it comes to their family lives has led to claims that their public relations strategy rests on a double standard.

The last one hundred years have taught us that the oxygen of good publicity, whether focused on the public or private activities of the royals, has been essential to the monarchy’s survival as an elite institution in an increasingly democratic age. And, in the past, the Windsors have recognized the value of the trade-off that requires they provide the media with glimpses of what goes on at home in order to sustain the link – based on knowability, relatability and likeability – that connects them as royal personalities to the British people.

It therefore remains to be seen how Harry’s reformulation of this age-old compromise will play out with the public. The prince’s advisors may well argue that royal social media accounts like Instagram and Twitter provide a more direct, human form of engagement with the public. But the reach of these platforms is limited to specific demographics; and, as is often the case with social media, the photos and stories that are uploaded to royal timelines tend to smack of PR artifice as much as they do authenticity.

“We thank you, the public, for your continued support. It is hugely appreciated. Although it may not seem like it, we really need it.” Duke of Sussex, 1 October 2019.

To some extent, the cry for help that lies at the heart of Harry’s recent public statement follows a tradition of royal pronouncements on how difficult life is as a young royal that dates back to the 1940s. And the way the prince expressed his gratitude to the public for their support echoes the sentiment contained in the speech made by his grandmother, Elizabeth II, when as a 21-year-old princess she dedicated her life to the service of Britain and its empire. However, the difference is that back then the ‘burden’ that came with being a Windsor centred more on the constant programme of duty expected of young royals rather than the intense glare of media speculation.

It may be that the prince’s letter has its intended effect, not only batting off unwanted advances from tabloid journalists but also, and more important, engendering public sympathy for him and his wife. Or it may be that the ploy backfires: the newspapers in question could choose to meet Harry’s challenge by publishing another spate of inflammatory reports and readers might reject his attempt to cultivate their affections.

What is clear is that the prince’s unconventional course of action has the potential to further disrupt the relationship between the royal family, the media and the public right at the time when the monarchy is trying to shore up its popularity in anticipation of the succession of King Charles III. As we near the end of Elizabeth II’s long reign, courtiers are working hard behind the scenes to generate positive news coverage around the individual royals who they serve. However, events of the last six months have not made this very easy.

To begin with there were the rumours that a rift had opened up between the Sussexes and Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The conjecture was fuelled by the fact that the brothers and their wives agreed to separate their households. But this gave rise to wild speculation on Twitter and in the tabloid press that there had been a falling out between William and Harry or the sisters-in-law – stories that were subsequently compounded by gossipy reports on the stability of the Cambridges’ marriage.

Since April there has been a concerted effort by royal officials and the royalist media to present William and Catherine as an ordinary, loving couple and as the perfect father and mother – be it at the Chelsea flower show or at the football. Similarly, the arrival of Harry and Meghan’s first child in May witnessed an outpouring of affectionate coverage for the duke and duchess as they embarked on parenthood; and their son, Archie, was the recipient of the media’s adoration during the recent tour of South Africa.

The public images of William and Harry matter – not just because the former will one day likely be king – but because the brothers have played a crucial role in the rehabilitation of their father’s image since Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Despite his personal eccentricities and the controversial second marriage to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales has been able to play the popular role of devoted father and, more recently, grandfather to a growing brood of royal grandchildren. Along with the renewed emphasis on his dutiful nature and desire to help solve the problems of the modern world, the image of the heir to the throne as a loving family man will be key to ensuring his successful transmogrification as monarch.

The family firm came under further strain with the revelations that Charles’s younger brother, Andrew, had close ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Serious questions remain to be answered about the precise nature of their friendship but, at best, it would appear that the queen’s second son is an extremely poor judge of character. And Elizabeth II’s deliberate show of solidarity with Andrew may in time lead to concerns being raised about her own powers of judgement should recent accusations ever be proved true.

The Andrew-Epstein story has exploded at an uncomfortable moment for the queen. Not only has an indiscreet former prime minister suggested that she sought to influence the course of national affairs, thus bringing into question her impartiality; but the current premier, in his bid to secure a deal to ease the UK’s exit from the European Union, has played fast and loose with political convention, most notably with the unlawful prorogation of parliament, which in turn pointed to serious weaknesses in Britain’s unwritten constitution and the ability of an unruly prime minister to mislead his monarch.

There will be calls for greater constitutional transparency after the commotion caused by Brexit has died down. A process of national healing will also need to begin. The 2016 EU referendum brought to light long-standing divisions in Britain’s postwar social fabric which, periodically, television images and photographs of massed crowds at royal weddings and jubilees had helped to conceal. It remains to be seen whether or not the House of Windsor will take a leading role in trying to bring the country back together. For now, the royal family is busy fighting its own battles as they continue to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the 21st century.

Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. He lives with his wife in France where he teaches and continues to research and write on the activities of the British royal family. He has recently published The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53 (University of London Press, 2019). It is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. Discover how the British Royal Family used the media to develop a public relations strategy to restore public confidence in the Crown between 1932-53. For queries please contact edowens@live.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.