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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
The rise and fall of the PR fairytale
Charles and Diana
Good old days - 700 million audience
The filming of Prince William at university has highlighted how relations between press and royals have changed, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie.

Since the 1960s a fascinating battle of wits has been waged between the mass media and the monarchy.

Before then, TV and radio coverage of the Royals was restricted to dignified - and somewhat stuffy - coverage of formal state occasion. Private lives were strictly off limits.

Daylight on magic

Sarah Ferguson was not such a PR success

Press coverage was organised by a select band of discreet and respectful - sometimes fawning - court correspondents effectively appointed by Buckingham Palace itself.

Then in 1969, worried that the monarchy was being seen as out of date and irrelevant, Buckingham Palace decided to launch a PR offensive based on the idea that the Royals were a happy, close-knit and perfectly "ordinary" family.

Stop treating them as gods. They are ordinary human beings and they will help sell newspapers.

Rupert Murdoch

TV cameras were let into the palaces and in a "fly on the wall" BBC documentary members of the Royal family were shown "off duty" for the first time doing things like exchanging Christmas presents and learning to play the cello.

This new and entirely unprecedented level of exposure was part of a PR strategy described as "letting daylight into the magic".


The documentary was a huge hit and established the Royals as much-loved - if slightly eccentric -TV stars and celebrities in their own right.

But the Palace, triumphant at this PR success, was soon to wonder if they had made the right move.
Sophie Wedding
Sophie Wessex's wedding a more low-key event

In 1969 Rupert Murdoch arrived in London and re-launched the Sun newspaper, revolutionising tabloid journalism based on the saturation coverage of celebrities and their private lives.

The Sun was the first to appoint a "non-approved" Royal correspondent - as opposed to a semi-official member of the court. Harry Arnold, the man chosen to do the job, was told to treat the Royals just like any other celebrities.

Love Affairs

The main target was Princes Charles and his string of girlfriends.

Harry Arnold later remembered that the Sun's owner Rupert Murdoch had told him: "Look, stop worshipping these people. Stop treating them as gods. They are ordinary human beings and they will help sell newspapers."

At first Buckingham Palace did not mind too much. The Sun's endless speculation about Prince Charles' love affairs all fitted with the campaign to show the young, sexy "human face" of the institution.

This cosy and modern relationship between superstar Royals and tabloid press worked for both sides, peaking with the Lady Diana wedding ceremony.

The Queen's press secretary at the time, Michael Shea, later said: "There was a sparkling princess and a fairy tale romance and it was something that everybody, even the most cynical, found attractive and interesting and wanted to watch and hear about.

Princess of Sales

"We tried to make every move that would help in that direction. And we had thousands of journalists and photographers and camera crews."

Prince William
New media object, Prince William

The tabloids became addicted to Diana. She was known in newsrooms as "The Princess of Sales" - her picture on the front page guaranteed extra profits.

After episodes like "DI LAND IN THE SUN" - when the Sun stalked the princess on holiday, publishing semi-naked pictures showing her pregnant, the palace began to complain about "intrusion" into the private lives of the Royals and asked for restraint.

But the royals found to their horror that they could not put the genie back into the bottle. It seemed that the tabloids would not be satisfied until the daylight spread into their bedrooms.

"There was a period where there were too many revealing, in-depth interviews going on," Michael Shea says. "I take certain blame for some of the earlier affairs because I was constantly trying to open the door, roll back the carpet a bit. Too much was given away about private lives.

"The problem about that is that once you've revealed private details about private lives, just as politicians find increasingly, then later on, a few weeks later, a few months later, if the media come and say, 'Now, tell us more about this particular aspect of your private life'."

Things were made even worse by other Royals who wanted to follow Diana into the limelight of international stardom. But none of them had anything like Diana's golden touch or natural ability in front on the cameras.

Fergie arrives

The marriage of Sarah Ferguson to Prince Andrew was another huge TV hit - but pulled off with none of the panache of the original Diana wedding.

The royals started to learn one of the rules of the modern media - those who live by the PR sword die by the PR sword.

By the early 1990s coverage of the Royals had changed from positive "fairytale princess" material to the details of Charles and Diana's failing marriage.

Toned down

Media coverage of the Royals in the months and years leading up to the Diana's death was so negative that her brother was to blame the tabloids for "hounding her to death".

After that the tabloids agreed to tone down the coverage of the royals in a move back to the old and more respectful approach.

In particular the mass media - including TV - agreed to "lay off" Prince William.


The fact that William has been filmed by a TV crew working for a firm run by Prince Edward has astonished the rest of the media.

It was once said that journalists on the republican Sun looked on the royals as being rather like pheasants kept for sport.

The feeling may be that now that the Royals themselves have unilaterally torn up the "hands off" agreement made after Diana's death.

And that could mean that, once again, it is open season on the House of Windsor.

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