The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales has been marked by several TV documentaries and a plethora of newspaper tributes.
Driven by candid television interviews granted by Diana’s sons, princes William and Harry, it has resulted in overwhelmingly sympathetic reporting.
Such coverage should be seen as the culmination of a long-run media strategy that has transformed the nature of royal reporting.
It is fair to say that the princes, in company with their advisers, have secured this change through relentless and hard-nosed news management.
They were determined not to allow a re-run of the press attention that haunted their mother and, in their opinion, contributed to her death in a Paris underpass on 31 August 1997.
No-one can be in the slightest doubt that they have succeeded. With a mixture of carrot and stick, they have secured a measure of privacy that would have astounded Diana.
Prince William and his wife have been prepared to take legal action, notably over the sneak photographs of the couple that were published in the French magazine, Closer.
They have also made use of this regulator. The Duchess of Cambridge complained to IPSO last year on behalf of her son, Prince George, after pictures of the then two-year-old playing on a police motorbike were published by OK! Magazine and the Daily Express website. In both cases, the complaints committee ruled (here and here) that the use of the photos amounted to an intrusion into privacy.
Note that privacy complaints emanating from royal quarters are not a foregone conclusion. A complaint to IPSO in 2015 by Prince Harry about a Daily Mail article which reported on a US magazine’s bogus story about his love life was, quite rightly, not upheld.
But the willingness of the princes to challenge coverage they regard as intrusive has helped to create a new climate in terms of the relationship between media editors and the royal family.
Similarly, and this is hugely significant, editors have also sought to avoid any replay of the Diana era. The royal rat-pack of the 1980s and 90s has long since disbanded.
There is no longer a UK market for those infamous stalkers, the paparazzi. Yes, some pictures have been published of Prince Harry’s actress friend, Meghan Markle, but fewer than might have been expected. And far fewer than of Diana prior to her marriage to Prince Charles.
That relative lack of publicity could well have been influenced by a sharp, and controversial, statement issued on Prince Harry’s behalf in November last year.
It complained of a line having been crossed by newspapers, none of which were identified, and mentioned “nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories [about himself and Ms Markle] out of papers”.
The statement, in the name of the prince’s Communications Secretary, Jason Knauf, concluded: “He has asked for this statement to be issued in the hopes that those in the press who have been driving this story can pause and reflect before any further damage is done”.
Responses by British newspaper editors suggested they were baffled by both its tone and content. I also noted their contention that Kensington Palace may have confused intrusive activities by US-based freelance reporters and photographers with those of UK-based staff journalists.
Whatever the truth of the situation at the time there can be little doubt that newspaper coverage about the couple ever since has been measured, if not muted.
In general, all royal coverage of late has been relatively respectful. Some headlines implied that the interviews with the princes tended to lower public esteem for Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, but the claims gained little media traction.
They were also defused by Prince Harry during his upcoming BBC interview. In talking about what happened after Diana’s death, he said of his father: “He was there for us”.
His defence of Prince Charles was accompanied by his registering a change of mind about the requirement that he and his brother should walk behind their mother’s coffin.
In June, he told the US magazine, Newsweek: “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today”.
Now, according to a leak of the new interview’s content, he has spoken of being “very glad” to have taken part in the funeral cortege. And Prince William, also talking in the same documentary to be aired on Sunday, underlined that their walk was a “collective” decision.
What is abundantly clear is that the brother princes have developed an appreciable media savviness. They have moved beyond their youthful awkwardness in front of the cameras. William, who once made little secret of his discomfort at press attention, has been more assured in recent public appearances. Harry has long been at ease in talking to journalists.
They have avoided the traps that compromised Diana’s attempts to restrain the press. They have not conspired with reporters or leaked information. They have accepted what appears to be wise advice from royal aides.
Even so, they (and those aides) cannot afford to be in the least bit triumphalist about protecting their privacy because there remains a legitimate public interest in how they live.
They may rankle about the fact that their birthright carries responsibilities which place them in a goldfish bowl. But that goes with the territory. Millions of British people would wish for even a portion of their inherited privileges.
Editors, who represent those millions, are conscious of the need to ensure that princely entitlement is not abused, which is as it should be. The watchdog must not be muzzled.
*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*