William & the Press: A Bad Romance

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It’s become part of Prince William’s narrative that he hates the press. Now, William has never publicly said, “I hate the press,” so this is not a statement of fact. It is, however, a fairly safe assumption based on, you know, his behavior and that of his office. But from where does it stem?

The obvious answer, of course, is the death of his mother in 1997 and the role that paparazzi are believed to have played in that fatal car accident. Then there is the blatant intrusion that they have caused in his life – speculating about his parents’ marriage in the ’90s, his and his brother’s antics throughout their respective teens and 20s and his own relationship with Kate Middleton.

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But the crux of the answer, I believe, is the press’s ability to put pressure on his and his family’s behavior one way or another. William isn’t stupid, and he would have to be to not understand how important the media is to keeping relevant the institution of the British monarchy. But he also wants to be able to use them like a tool in the broader agenda of his work within the family, and that’s the rub.

William likes to be in control, which makes sense given that the examples laid out for him by his parents are a good warning story for what happens when you lose your grip on your narrative. Diana, Princess of Wales was masterful with the media; she naturally understood the power of images, reputation and goodwill. But the intensity of the attention could also very easily turn ugly. The juxtaposition of being surrounded by adoration by day and returning to solitude at night. The isolation of being disconnected to your family and friends and all the other things that keep you grounded. The trapped feeling of being a cog in a larger machine to which you must pay homage.

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It is this fate from which I think William is obviously trying to protect Kate. And understandably given that this is what he saw when a young woman married an heir to the throne. But Diana’s story was never going to be Kate’s story, if for no other reason than William and Kate seemingly have a happy marriage. As for the other factors, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that William has given his wife and their marriage as much insurance as possible: Kate was 29 to Diana’s 20 when she married. She is still intimately involved with her family. She has not been made to turn over her life to a Palace scheduler. She has more down time, privacy and freedom than Diana ever had.

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William’s father is less of a natural at it, which is interesting only because he, unlike Diana, was born into his role. But in the 20 years since Diana died, Clarence House has been running a sophisticated, if ruthless, operation. Its success is due, perhaps, to a combination of being outside of Diana’s shadow and learning her tricks of the trade. Prince Charles is at his best when he leans on his roles of husband, father and grandfather. But Charles isn’t stupid either, nor is he without his own ego, insecurities and ambitions. His goal in the early post-Diana years was to pave the way to make Camilla his wife – and that meant making her palatable to a public that blamed her for the demise of his first marriage.

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It’s been well-documented that a little less than a year after Diana’s death, William finally met his father’s long-term girlfriend. The meeting was as successful as it could have been. And while we don’t know what William’s feelings for Camilla were at the time, he and Harry were supportive of their father’s marriage to her seven years later and, by all appearances, have a friendly, warm relationship with their stepmother.

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Charles and Camilla in 1999 at their first public appearance together after Diana’s death, the 50th birthday of Camilla’s sister, Annabel

Less well-known was that about a month after the meeting Charles’s press secretary, Sandy Henney, got a call from Rebekah Wade (better-known now as Rebekah Brooks) with The Sun who had heard from Charles’s deputy private secretary, Mark Boland, that the meeting had taken place and wanted to write about it. Why would she have heard of it? Because if “Diana’s boys” had come to terms with Camilla, then surely the public would too. What better endorsement could Camilla possibly get?

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Less than ideal for the Clarence House press shop

Now, to be clear, Camilla didn’t prod Boland to make that call. I highly doubt Charles did either. This was Boland cutting through the underbrush to do what was best on behalf of his “client” – in this case that was getting Charles what he wanted. But it was also a pretty rough manipulation of a 16-year-old boy who had recently lived through his parents’ divorce and his mother’s death in the span of a couple years. Or, put another way, a callous manipulation of the man’s own son.

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In a 2012 column for The Daily Beast, Tom Sykes captured the behind-the-scenes drama:

Wade said she’d heard about Camilla’s meeting with William, Henney says: “I said, ‘Rebekah, I’m not going to deny it but the shit’s going to hit the proverbial fan when the young man finds out about this because he will think that someone’s been spying on him and anything we’ve done in terms of trying to persuade him that the media have a place etc . . . it ain’t going to work. I’m really pissed off with this’. So she said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Can I have 24 hours? I want to talk to William’. ‘You’ve got it,’ she said, ‘and you can write the story’.”

Henney told William what had happened. “I knew he wouldn’t like it because he would see it as intrusion, as I did — and he didn’t trust the prince’s office at the best of times. I didn’t like it and I thought it was a cynical way of using William — if William’s okay with Camilla then the public should be okay with her too. But I had to deal with this young man, so I said, ‘We can’t win this battle but we can lose it slightly more gracefully. The story’s going to go in but we have the opportunity to put it from our point of view’. At the end of the day I said to William, ‘This is what we’re going to say, are you happy?’ ‘Well, I’m not happy,’ he said, ‘but I understand’. And I thought, how grown-up. He could have gone into a real teenage boy sulk but no — he said, ‘I understand’ and accepted it.”

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I think William made his peace with making dirty deals with the press on his own or his family’s behalf a long time ago. Keep in mind, too, that before his relationship with Kate became public his reputation was that of the most eligible bachelor in the world. He was a teenage heartthrob and treated as such. He is used to dealing with sustained, intense public interest.

I’m confident that, to a certain extent, he is protective of the reputations of his brother, his father and his grandparents, but I think he also sees them as equal veterans in this existence. I suspect, however, that taking on a wife and children has brought up old wounds.

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Kate photographed outside her home on the morning of her 25th birthday in 2007

I firmly believe that the longevity of William and Kate’s relationship existing without an engagement was less a matter of “cold feet” on his end, and more a matter of 1) doing everything in his power to ensure their relationship was rock solid enough to withstand the scrutiny it would have to endure if he married her and 2) giving her as much time as a private citizen as he could. While Kate was criticized with regularity as William’s girlfriend, there wasn’t really a compelling argument to be made that she “owed” anything to the public. That would, and did, change once she became an official member of The Family.

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For any time they seem timid or awkward, remember it looks more like this on their end

And for all that William has gone out of his way to protect Kate, he can’t insulate her from public interest, which is higher than that of him at this point. In 2012 the couple took a holiday in southern France at a chateau belonging to his cousin, David Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley (now Earl of Snowden since the passing of his father earlier this month). While there, William and Kate sunbathed on a balcony where Kate was caught topless by a long-lens photographer. The photos would come out that September in the French publication Closer while the couple were in Southeast Asia on the Queen’s behalf.

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The day the France photo scandal broke – William’s anger reverberated through the photos. Here, by the end of the day, the stress had even gotten to Kate, who had held up much better through the day’s engagements.

William and Kate reacted swiftly and St. James Palace confirmed the couple would be taking legal action – indeed, an injunction was placed on the photos in France and they were never published in Britain out of respect. However, a French injunction is useless in other countries and the photo ended up in various European titles, not to mention the internet.

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Courtesy of the Daily Mail, a photograph illustrating how far away the cameraman was from the residence. Difficult to make the argument that Kate “should have known” she was on display or was in any danger of being seen.

Flash forward four-and-a-half years and six members of the press are currently on trial for breaching France’s privacy laws. William and Kate, according to sources close to the prosecution are “absolutely delighted” that there may be punishment for the accused, who face up to one year in jail and individual fines of 45,000 euros.

So far that has been the biggest “scandal” that has faced William and Kate as a married couple and, all told, press stories are friendly towards them. They’re popular, generally well-liked people whose kids are adorable. It should very much be noted that these are not people facing daily articles speculating on the state of their marriage or picking them apart. If anything, the biggest issue for reporters covering them is that they can be, well, rather dull.

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Those sweet photos of William and Kate with the newly-born George? Now, from the other side.

Now, when it comes to Kate, for as much as William is protective, I think he is also cognizant that she is an adult who willingly took on this position. The same cannot be said for his children and God help us all, but especially the press, if George and Charlotte are ever put at risk or their privacy unduly breached. Some make the argument that William is doing his children a disservice by “hiding” them away – that they would be better-served by becoming used to cameras and attention. I find this bizarre. First of all, I feel like we have seen plenty of the children. Kensington Palace releases occasional photos, they both accompanied their parents on their last overseas tour to Canada  and George has accompanied his parents on engagements – this will all likely increase as they get older. What we don’t get are regular paparazzi shots of the kids (there have been a few), but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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I also give William a lot of leeway when it comes to making judgments on raising his children in the public eyes, because there is literally no one else on this earth better-equipped to know what that feels like. A lot of the “cute” pictures and videos released in the 1980s to showcase the Wales family now feel slightly creepy. If William, who lived through this, has decided that this isn’t an experience he wants his children to have, then I respect that.

Here is William with his parents in 1983:

And another in 1985 after Harry had been born:

William has made it clear he’s not messing around when it comes to his kids. On August 15, 2015 Kensington Palace issued a press release on William and Kate’s behalf, which was subsequently re-issued by the Prince of Wales, regarding the safety of Prince George and media harassment of him. To put the timing into context, this was three months after Princess Charlotte had been born, Kate was on maternity leave and the family was largely holed up in Norfolk at Anmer Hall. There had been a dearth of royal coverage and then this:

[..P]aparazzi photographers are going to increasingly extreme lengths to observe and monitor Prince George’s movements and covertly capture images of him to sell to the handful of international media titles still willing to pay for them. One recent incident – just last week – was disturbing, but not at all uncommon. A photographer rented a car and parked in a discreet location outside a children’s play area. Already concealed by darkened windows, he took the added step of hanging sheets inside the vehicle and created a hide stocked with food and drinks to get him through a full day of surveillance, waiting in hope to capture images of Prince George. Police discovered him lying down in the boot of the vehicle attempting to shoot photos with a long lens through a small gap in his hide.

It is of course upsetting that such tactics – reminiscent as they are of past surveillance by groups intent on doing more than capturing images – are being deployed to profit from the image of a two-year old boy.  In a heightened security
environment such tactics are a risk to all involved. The worry is that it will not always be possible to quickly distinguish between someone taking photos and someone intending to do more immediate harm.

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Not all bad – William teaching George to wave to reporters and photographers outside St. Mary’s the day Charlotte was born.

It struck royal reporters as coming out of left field, bizarre and some of the language vaguely threatening, as though photographers were suddenly at risk of being shot. And its wording is Kensington Palace at its worst – condescending, angry and far too candid. It’s one thing for William to be freaked out – it’s another for that to be filtered to the public. That’s literally why you employ a communications office, to ensure this doesn’t happen. (Though, to be fair to KP, at the end of the day, William’s the boss – I have no way of knowing whose idea this was, obviously).

It’s worth clicking through to the link and seeing the introduction that the savvier Clarence House prefaced the release with, which includes giving greater credit to the publications that refrain from publishing illegal paparazzi photos of the children. It’s warmer, it’s cooperative, it’s effective. KP, take note. Here’s a portion of it:

It is hoped that those who pay paparazzi photographers for their images of children will be able to better understand the distressing activity around a two-year old boy that their money is fuelling. We also feel that the readers who enjoy the publications that fuel this market for the unauthorised photos deserve to understand the tactics deployed to obtain these photos.

The vast majority of publications around the world – and all British publications – have refused to fuel the market for such photos. This is an important and laudable stance for which The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are hugely grateful. They have enjoyed sharing an increasing number of photos of their children and look forward to continuing to take them to more public events as they get older.

But much like I give Kate some slack on still finding her footing with her role, I also give it to William on navigating being a parent (I very much think William is driving the bus when it comes to framing the couple’s image and management of their children’s exposure). Much like he has slowed the pace with which he has introduced himself and Kate into being full-time Royals as compared to his parents, so too do I think is he slowing the pace for his children. He, and/or KP, have fumbled the ball at times – last year’s skiing photos, for one – but I also think he’s done a lot right. George and Charlotte have both made appearances on the Buckingham Palace balcony for the Trooping of the Colour, they’ve accompanied their parents on tours, George has gone on a UK engagement already. They’re 3 1/2 and 1 1/2 – that’s not too shabby.

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George accompanying William and Kate on an engagement in 2016

But mainly I think he’s doing right by George and Charlotte and I firmly believe William will gladly weather bad press for a few years if it means ensuring his children have as peaceful a childhood as possible.

I suspect William will grow easier about his kids as they get older, but by the same token, his antipathy towards reporters, most recently seen when he refused to acknowledge them at an engagement earlier this month, isn’t helping. It’s a part of the job that isn’t going away and lumping “the press” in with rogue paparazzi isn’t constructive.

Nor is talking about privacy as though it’s his right, because the Royal Family in 2017 is, to a certain extant, a privilege. It’s public service. William has been given a lot of latitude and he and Kate have a fair amount of built up goodwill, but some of the press they’ve received in the past year is a warning sign that they’re bumping up against that time limit. William has been given a lot of space – freedom at University, freedom to pursue a career, freedom to live with Kate in Wales as a pilot, freedom to slowly inch up his royal duties.

The majority of the press aren’t looking to exploit or harass George and Charlotte. What they are looking for is a healthy working relationship with William and Kate as the future king and queen. Allowing for the latter doesn’t jeopardize the former. So, stop glaring at photographers.

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George at his first Trooping of the Colour in 2015

 

2 thoughts on “William & the Press: A Bad Romance

  1. Pingback: Windsor v. Trump – Rebecca Starr Brown

  2. Pingback: Style Transformation Part Two: The Duchess of Cambridge (2011-2017) – Rebecca Starr Brown

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