In July 1991, the editor of The Daily Telegraph hauled me into his office for a severe dressing down. My offense? I had written to an aide of the Duchess of Gloucester suggesting she had been poorly advised in refusing to speak to me in my capacity as The Telegraph’s defense correspondent.
It had not been an unreasonable request. I had planned a simple, back-of-the-paper puff piece about the return from the Gulf War of the destroyer HMS RELATED ARTICLE
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– David HalberstamGloucester—whose crew had earlier shot down an Iraqi Styx missile aimed at the battleship USS Missouri—and was feeling a little guilty about canceling a visit when I was in Kuwait City.
At the Navy’s invitation, therefore, I had been on HMS Gloucester on its final return leg to London when the Duchess came aboard to congratulate the crew. A bonus, I had thought; she had offered valuable support to wives of the crew during the Persian Gulf War, and it seemed both to me and my Navy Public Relations escort that a brief supportive comment would fit nicely with the piece I was writing.
But in spite of The Telegraph’s reputation as the strongest and most traditional media supporter of the armed services she sent word that she was on a “private” visit and would not see me. Puzzled by this and encouraged by my Navy aide, I nevertheless found a moment to approach her. I had barely introduced myself when she stepped back and declared: “I do not speak to the press!” She looked a little flushed, then walked past me, my mouth frozen half open.
The British call it “gobsmacked” and, as I sensed Navy shoulders slumping around me, it certainly felt I had been slapped in the face. Days later, still smarting and discovering from The Telegraph’s royal expert that the Duchess had merely been a legal secretary at the Danish embassy before she married the Duke, I decided to put pen to paper.
The problem, my inquiries indicated, was less the Duchess herself than the fawning characters who surrounded her. I wrote to her military aide that under the circumstances she could have done the navy a service by offering the sort of innocuous supportive comment I had expected. The aide responded by sending an outrageously inaccurate complaint about me to the editor.
Naive? Yes, in retrospect I was. I had not realized the residual strength of the old British Establishment. The editor calmed down after hearing my side of the story, but he did not back my effort to try to do something about it. Hierarchy, he made clear, must be respected. The Royal Family must remain inviolate.
By way of explanation to the regal aide, he replied that I had just spent the last 16 years living in America!
It did, indeed, feel as though I had fallen into a time warp. As an Americanized Englishman I knew that the Royal Family held a place in British constitutional life comparable to The Flag and The Constitution in the United States. But had so little changed since I departed England in late 1969 that I should not be allowed to speak to even the most junior member of the Royal Family on a public matter?
Had Britain not had Thatcherism, seen the end of the Empire, gone through an economic revolution in which services took over from manufacturing, watched as jeans-wearing middle-class rockers took over from elderly city gents, and sat back as militant trade unionism was crushed by the government?
This was, I recall, essentially the theme I had taken in months of study in Widener Library during my Nieman Year. It was time, I wrote for Professor Samuel Beer then, for the rise of a post-industrial third political party—the Social Democrats. But I was premature. This was before the Falklands War and before Thatcherism had revealed its full political appeal.
Perhaps I should have remembered what the late Sir James Goldsmith told me at the Conservative Party conference in 1984, months after real union power concluded with collapse of the violent miners’ strike:“Margaret Thatcher,” the canny business tycoon said, “has completed only half of her revolution. She has defeated the unions but she has not, and I fear she will not, change the board room.”
The entrepreneurial, sleeves-rolled-up, classless, meritocratic society Thatcher’s Conservatives were calling for did slowly materialize, but somehow in the absence of union checks and with a continued attraction to the old Establishment view of management—the big salary, the big car, the knighthood—it lost a degree of honesty and caring. Britain was ready for political change in 1992, but, with Thatcher gone from office and Old Labour still not yet buried, John Major’s Conservatives got another five-year chance.
That all changed with the landslide election of Tony Blair’s New Labour in May last year. In part it was a protest vote, but it took the outpouring of national grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, three months later to show the world just how far stiff-upper-lip, emotionless, traditional Britain had changed.
In the seven years since my reprimand over the Duchess of Gloucester I have seen an immense shift in the way this nation sees itself. And the change has as much to do with the way it has been reported as in change in the public itself. A great deal of it was probably inevitable: cable and satellite TV, more and more specialist magazines, the Internet, more public choice in what and how it receives information, a shift away from public interest issues to personal concerns.
But Britain may be a special case in that it still has 11 national daily newspapers and nine national Sundays, as fiercely competitive as any in the world. Circulation figures are studied minutely by advertisers, executives are routinely hired and fired on the strength of the bottom line, and in the last five years virtual war has raged between them over an ever-dwindling number of readers. In October 1992, circulation for the 11 dailies at the full price was 14,218,607. By October 1997, that had dropped by 14.78 percent to 12,117,690. Actual sales were 13,788,110, but that includes discounted, bulk and subscription sales.
One tabloid newspaper, Today, folded in 1995, and in the broadsheets the Independent and Independent on Sunday have almost been on life-support systems for several years. The newspapers with the most news and the most reporters, therefore, usually establishing the news benchmark for much of the rest of the media, have long been The Telegraph and The Times. But it is there that the circulation war has probably been the fiercest.
In 1993 Rupert Murdoch’s Times, then with a circulation of only about 430,00, launched its bid to replace the 1,200,000-circulation Telegraph with a huge cut-price sales promotion and an increasingly populist news and features content. Conrad Black’s Telegraph, without the equivalent of Murdoch’s empire to subsidize it, saw its circulation drop perilously close to the 1 million mark, the threshold below which advertisers would ask for significant rate reductions. It responded with costly sales promotions of its own and major efforts to attract new readers.
To U.S. observers, conditioned to the majestic, cerebral and mostly uncompetitive pace of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph and Times were “dumbing down” to appeal to elusive 35-year-old women thought to be increasingly addicted to the high-end tabloid leader, the ever-growing Daily Mail. Sports, health, travel, media, arts, fashion—these were the new battle zones in the circulation war, at the expense of foreign news and specializations such as local government, religion, some government departments—and, to my chagrin, defense.
For many years The Telegraph was the acknowledged leader in defense reporting, with no fewer than four defense writers in 1986. By 1995, with news values now skewed firmly away from NATO, army reorganization and international security issues, the writing was on the wall for me and I departed.
I was never comfortable with the rising demand for “sex-at-sea” and “costly curtains-in-the-air-chief’s-house” stories, and to his credit neither was the editor. Fundamentally, neither of us wanted to see The Telegraph chasing The Daily Mail’s readership to stave off The Times. But that was the circulation requirement. The writing was probably on the wall for him, too, when he declined to compete against The Sunday Times for a chance to serialize Andrew Morton’s sensational first book about Diana, Princess of Wales. He left The Telegraph a few months after me to return as editor to his old London newspaper.
The climate, therefore, was present from 1993 onwards for newspapers to become ever bolder. If the broadsheets were going to get tabloid, the tabloids had to be even more tabloid. Absent justifiable broadsheet restraint and criticism, the tabloids fought their own circulation battles. It was a world in which paparazzi photographers thrived, with ever-higher fees paid for ever-more intrusive pictures.
And none so valuable as Princess Diana, Britain’s biggest world superstar, the fabulous fairy-tale princess who everyone felt they knew intimately.
I met her only once, at a post Gulf War function at which I was only the stand-in for my historian colleague John Keegan, Defense Editor of The Telegraph. It was only the briefest handshake in a line of people, but I remember being struck by her height, her poise, her open face and her soft, sexy voice. I confess I’d fancied her since she was “Shy Di” the nanny—indeed she reminded me of my wife when she was younger—and although I knew she came from the old aristocracy she appeared unsophisticated. I always thought I’d be quite comfortable taking her to the movies or on a walk in the park, a feeling I had about no other female member of the Royal Family, including Fergie.
And so it seemed to most people. No less so than to journalists, who were seduced by her right from the start. Prince Charles had obviously failed to find a mate with which to produce an heir to the throne by 1980, so here was Diana, whose photograph in a newspaper instantly sold extra copies. Although Charles himself appeared unsure about her, the media was not. Traditional deference for the monarchy was already fading fast, and non-establishment media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch—not only with The Times but the huge-selling Sun and Sunday News of the World—saw Diana as a Trojan Horse for populism inside the heart of the British Establishment.
The public couldn’t get enough of her. Attractive to men and women alike, her bulimia, her failed marriage, her isolation inside the stuffy royal family, made her even more appealing. And unfair though much of it might have been, newspaper photographs of her with sons William and Harry happily enjoying a water-chute ride gave Prince Charles no chance in the popularity stakes when he was seen with the boys dressed boringly in shirts and ties.
Diana was the icon of the age, and I feel if she hadn’t died in a car crash in Paris something else might well have killed her. I doubt she would ever have escaped close media scrutiny.
Perhaps she thought she could do so with Dodi Fayed, whose father’s money could at least give her some of the protection offered to Jackie Kennedy by the Onassis family. But the media world of 1963 does not compare with 1997. And even so the fact remains that the mother of the future king of England was in the close company of a man whose anti-establishment father—perhaps the most controversial businessman in Britain—was part of the sleaze that helped bring 18 years of Conservative government to an end.
Arguably, therefore, Diana and Dodi were legitimate media “targets.” If it could be shown that they were so close that a long-term relationship, or even marriage, was likely it would be major news. And indeed, some Arab news reports that Dodi and Diana were killed by the British establishment to prevent an Egyptian entering the Royal Family were easily accepted in some countries.
The pursuit of Diana created the media standard. With distinctions blurred between broadsheet and tabloid, and news editors crossing the line with increasing frequency, everyone in public life was fair game. Even the high-minded Independent gave up its refusal to print royal stories. Pop stars, TV personalities, football players, politicians (of course) were given little respite, though there was general press revulsion at alleged tabloid reporters trying to question small children after the Dunblane shooting massacre in Scotland.
One case involving a married actor and a frequently pursued attractive female actress was examined in detail by The Guardian broadsheet last October. It set out a series of events starting in 1994 when freelance photographers “caught” the actor with his arm around her. That resulted in a story in The People tabloid Sunday paper (pages one, two and three) in which it was contended that he had left his wife and was planning to set up home with the actress. It was untrue, and the photos were misconstrued. But there then followed weeks and months of harassment involving packs of photographers, interminable phone calls, newspapers taped over windows, photographers suddenly appearing and money offered to “tell your side of the story.” Despite their constant denials stories, gleaned from uncorrected news clips appeared in newspapers linking the two years later.
The broadsheets themselves declined to direct and pay photographers for sensational scoop pictures, such as Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, sucking the toes of her “financial adviser” Texan John Bryan, but they began to pay for second rights to paparazzi pictures obtained elsewhere. The revamped Telegraph, for instance, bought photos from The Daily Mail of the chief of the Air Force kissing his secret lover after a meeting at a hotel and reprinted extracts of his love letters to her. Although the affair was already over and this was a setup arranged between the lover and The Mail, the chief immediately resigned and has not been heard from publicly since.
Diana’s death finally persuaded almost all in Britain that, no matter what the immediate cause, media invasion of privacy had to change. Although Britain has one of the strongest libel laws of Western nations, a new privacy law was under strong consideration. The anti-media backlash—fueled strongly, I believe, by a sense of public guilt in creating demand for paparazzi pictures—started on the morning of her death, rippled through Westminster Cathedral at her funeral and went on for months. But it was a totally confused backlash, the public buying newspapers in unprecedented numbers and condemning them as well.
In times of national crisis the British public traditionally turns to the Queen, but this time tradition was not what it wanted. It wanted comfort and was confused by tradition that demanded that no royal flags flew at half-staff over Buckingham Palace and that barely sight nor sound be heard from the Royal Family in mourning.
It took media pressure to change royal attitudes. “Speak To Us, Ma’am” demanded one huge tabloid headline three days after Diana’s death. And in the royal silence a totally unsubstantiated Daily Mail headline “Charles Weeps Bitter Tears of Guilt” expressed perceived public anger at Diana’s former husband. Within days Prime Minister Blair, who first called her “the People’s Princess,” had persuaded the Queen to make a televised address to the world, to make Diana’s funeral a major, modern event and for her son and grandsons to walk publicly behind Diana’s coffin.
Was it all mass hysteria or media hype, as some have now suggested? Did Britain lose its backbone in a tide of media-driven “sentimental slush?”
Perhaps a little. People were shocked, and there is little doubt that images of a tearful child or policewoman, or the choked words of an elderly man struggling to retain his dignity, have a powerful effect on large numbers of people if the national mood is right.
But I am certain, too, that the British are fundamentally sentimental and communal in attitude. Their external veneer, born of trade, responsibility of empire, war and pragmatism, perhaps remains stiff-upper-lip but in a tight, overpopulated country in which 85 percent of people live within 350 miles of each other, there are few real strangers.
Whether they liked Diana or not, everyone thought they knew her and responded personally. On the day she died I attended a military exhibition where upper lips were very stiff. But an admiral found he could not stop tears from pouring down his cheek. He had not cried when his ship was sunk with the loss of 23 crew members during the Falklands War in 1982, but he was crying at Diana’s death. Many others found in her death that week a release for personal grief not released before, and as one of the two million who went to her funeral and saw the millions of flowers I am certain this was a national catharsis.
Nine months later, and Diana remains in the papers almost every day. She fills the front page and the inside pages. There are special sections, magazine supplements, TV and radio reminiscences, and at least a dozen books. She is on T-shirts, mugs, plates and money pours into the Diana Memorial Fund at the rate of £1 million a week. Largely in her memory an international treaty banning anti-personnel mines has been approved. Academics are even considering establishing college courses examining her as a phenomenon. She is not yet a saint but, like Elvis, I expect a rash of sightings any moment.
It is therefore almost with astonishment that I report the media has almost completely lived up to its word not to pursue those closest to her—Princes William and Harry. And it has generally lived up to its editors’ new code of ethical standards.
“Its gone all boring,” said one subeditor at The News of the World. “We hardly use paparazzi pictures at all any more. But then neither does anybody else. It was always a case of ‘if the others use them we have to, too’ and they don’t so we don’t.”
There was an incident on the slopes in Switzerland in January, when two French agency photographers were reported to have snapped Prince Charles, William, Harry and niece Zara Phillips after the media had been asked not to follow the royal party. But under a new “name and shame” policy by Buckingham Palace, they were publicly identified. A spokesman for one of them, Paris-based Gamma, declined to comment, and a spokesman for the other, Sygma, also based in Paris, said its photographer was instructed only to take photos at the agreed photocall. It would not distribute them without Palace permission.
International public demand for the young princes remains extraordinarily high, however. Hundreds of teenage girls swooned over 16-year-old William in Canada in March, giving rise to one or two British newspaper references of “His Hunkiness,” but candid photos taken by local newspapers went unpurchased by the British nationals.
Since January 1 the Press Complaints Commission, established by the government but run by national newspaper editors, has had rules on privacy described by its chairman Lord Wakeham as “the toughest in Europe.” It bars photographers from photographing people in “public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
“Public property” in these circumstances covers residential gardens, hotel corridors, swimming pools, restaurants and churches, and does not allow photography unless the subjects themselves consent to it. The code also bans the use of long lenses and “persistent pursuit” of subjects and holds editors to account for knowing that the pictures they do use were obtained within the code’s definitions.
Journalists are banned from obtaining information by “clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations.” Documents and letters relating to a subject’s health, home and family life are to remain private. Money cannot be offered to confessed or convicted criminals, their families or representatives. In an indirect effort to protect the two princes the code states that children in full-time education should be left alone. Payment to children for information is banned. Fines for infractions by newspapers were ruled out, but punishment by publicly admitting they broke the rules is considered more effective.
The exceptions to all this are “the public interest,” which is defined in three areas: “detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanor, protecting public health and safety, and preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organization.
“In any case, where the pubic interest is invoked, the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor demonstrating how the public interest was served. In cases involving children editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the normally paramount interests of the child.”
The Times, however, controversially found a way round this in April by paying for serialization rights on a book about a female child-killer whose author paid the criminal. Whether this was a breach of the code was undetermined at the time of going to press.
Either way, the British media appears to have been decisively scared by Diana’s death last August 31. With 83 percent of the public favoring a law restricting media reporting on the private lives of the Royal Family and others in public life in September it has significantly improved its attitude to privacy. There are still plenty of salacious stories, but a spokeswoman for the PCC said there have been “hardly any complaints at all…. I think the press has been a hell of a lot better.”
As for the Royals they, too, have changed for the better. Encouraged by Tony Blair and special advisory groups they have been repackaging themselves as a more public-friendly “House of Windsor Inc.” The Queen has actually visited a pub, she invited ordinary people to a formal banquet marking her golden wedding anniversary, and—music to my ears—she has admitted that she has sometimes been more tuned to what her courtiers tell her than her public.
There is even talk of slimming down the official size of the Royal Family to exclude the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester!
The public has responded remarkably favorably. It has shown huge sympathy for Diana’s sons and for Prince Charles, whose approval level shot up from 42 percent in August—before Diana’s death—to 61 percent after a successful visit to South Africa in November. There are signs everywhere that The Establishment, led by the Monarchy, is accepting that Diana’s death marked a turning point, that it has had to become more publicly acceptable to prosper into the 21st Century.
Politically, Tony Blair and New Labour are more popular now than at the last general election, with the Conservatives going nowhere and even rumored to be thinking about changing their name.
But there remains no one to replace Diana. She leaves a huge void in national life that is marked by endless books, films, tributes and commercialization. There is a backlash against exploitation of her memory, and some embarrassment that we’ve all been a bit too emotional. But then we haven’t yet got to the opening of her shrine at the Spencer family home…or the rock concert there…or the gardens dedicated to her at Kensington Palace…or the final French report into her car crash…or the first anniversary of her death.
And what of the biggest question of all: Prince William’s first girlfriend? What voluntary code of conduct is going to survive the riches available for an exclusive photo of the woman who could produce the next heir to the throne and continue Diana’s line?
We probably already know the answer.
Peter Almond was working for the now-defunct Cleveland Press when he became a Nieman Fellow in 1980-81. Born in England in 1946 and educated there, he worked as a reporter in the north of England for over five years before emigrating to Cleveland with his English bride Anna in January, 1970. After the collapse of The Press in 1982 he became State Department writer for the new Washington Times, moved to London as Europe-Middle East correspondent the next year, and returned to Washington as defense writer for the Times in 1987. He joined The Daily Telegraph as defense writer in August 1990, and left in July 1995. He is now a freelance writer and his first book, “Aviation: The Early Years,” has just been published internationally by Konemann of Germany. He and Anna have two U.S.-born sons.