The new outbreak of sinister and, I suspect, ultimately futile manipulation involving the press and the Royal Family must stop. Not for the first time, the relationship between the two is subject to more jiggery-pokery than can be found even in the corridors of Westminster. So my message to the royals is – stop harassing the press.
Perhaps harassment is a harsh description of the campaign by Prince Charles to woo newspaper editors. After all, invitations to visit Highgrove are more like a handshake from a velvet glove.
But his motive could not be clearer. He wants the press onside in an ongoing saga that makes the plots of most TV soap operas seem wholly believable. Most vitally, the Prince of Wales craves press support for his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Hence, so I hear, the entertaining at Highgrove of such powerful figures as Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World – the country’s 54th most important media person, according to the recent Guardian hot 100 – together with her partner, actor Ross Kemp.
The brilliant actress Nicola McAuliffe is another who, with her husband, has been invited to Highgrove for tea and what the Prince hopes will be sympathy. Ms McAuliffe just happens to be married to Don Mackay, a veteran Daily Mirror reporter used more to thrusting his foot in doors reluctant to admit journalists than being ushered over the welcome mat to hobnob with the heir to the throne.
Embracing the enemy is not a new tactic for the royals. In 1981, when the Prince’s late wife was pregnant with their first child, Buckingham Palace took the unprecedented step of requesting that all national newspaper editors attend a meeting. When most of them turned up, the Queen asked them to stop their papers harassing the Princess of Wales, who was having difficulty in dealing with the constant attentions of the press and the paparazzi.
The Sun’s Kelvin MacKenzie turned down the invitation, explaining that he would be attending a pre-arranged meeting with his proprietor. Kelvin knew that in the power game the Queen versus Rupert Murdoch was no contest.
The then editor of the News of the World, Barrie Askew – a subject for a Where Are They Now? column if ever there was one – ruffled royal feathers by voicing the opinion that the press had the right to report all Di’s activities, whether she was attending a royal film premiere or buying wine gums. This was not the view of the majority. They were not unsympathetic to the Queen’s pleas, a feeling that, for most, may well have lasted as long as it took to motor down The Mall and back to the office. Despite good intentions, hostilities were shortly resumed.
Much later, the Princess and the Prince of Wales each made strenuous efforts to put members of the press in their pockets. Both sides employed such weapons as leak and counter-leak, photo opportunity tip-offs and misinformation to win favourable coverage as the marriage collapsed like a house of cards made out of an Unhappy Families pack.
Harry Arnold, the best royal correspondent of them all before he became disenchanted with The Sun and moved to a new beat at The Mirror, has recalled that Diana used a range of feminine wiles to captivate the almost exclusively male royal ratpack. "She never had total control, but she used to manipulate us," he said. "It’s been going on since the Garden of Eden."
Even with Diana gone, Charles is no Eve. The tabloids, especially, have always been ambivalent about the heir to the throne, often sniping at his environmental interests, concern over our crumbling society and outspoken criticism of some modern architecture. The action man of the past became the whipping boy of the popular press as he grew into middle age. But he appears to have learned something from Diana’s success in influencing the media. It seems he believes that by playing on the vanities of journalists and feeding their appetites for flattery and elitism, he can soften deeply ingrained attitudes and ultimately get them all singing from a new hymnsheet. His.
If so, it is a perilous plan that cannot work – as ever, the fierce competition in the tabloid market will determine what’s published and how – and should be resisted by the media. I don’t know who else has featured on the Highgrove guest list, but every one of them is being compromised. Their egos may be massaged by dining with his royalship, but if chicken is on the menu it is one that’s bound to come home to roost.
Can an editor who has broken bread with the Prince remain totally impartial if a story unflattering to him comes to light? How can a writer not feel bound to defend his new best friend when called upon to work on a tale that will put another dent in the Prince’s reputation? The best journalists doggedly stay outside the establishment and you can’t get much further inside it than sucking up to a royal on the make who wants to buy your loyalty for a tray of canapÅ½s and a few glasses of wine. For all concerned, that really is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.
Prince Charles could take a leaf out of Richard Desmond’s book when it comes to charming the press. Heaven knows how, but the rough diamond with a degree in profanity had The Times’s Raymond Snoddy and the Financial Times’s Ashling O’Connor purring like kittens that had been gently scratched behind the ear when he gave his first interviews since taking over the Express group.
In both conversations, Desmond claimed that Commerzbank was willing to loan him £1bn for acquisitions. It was left to The Daily Telegraph to check this with the bank and discover that Desmond had no such credit arrangement.
But hold on a minute. In a subsequent Guardian story, about Desmond’s hiring of former Capital Radio executive Richard Park, a Commerzbank spokesman was quoted as saying that cash would be made available for the right deals and that the figure of £1bn did not frighten them. One suspects a full and frank exchange of views between Desmond and the bankers may have taken place after the Telegraph story appeared.
Meanwhile, Desmond continues to spend lavishly in some areas – high salaries for good journalists is not one of them – including outbidding rivals for big-name books and planning, with the help of Park’s consultancy, to move into radio.
Meanwhile, the latest ABC six-monthly figures show the Daily Express down more than 10 per cent and the Sunday Express four per cent adrift of the same period a year ago. Where will it all end? Not, one hopes, in more tears for those Express Group journalists who must feel as beleaguered as poor old Charles after years of denigration by a succession of uncaring proprietors.