What’s the collective noun for royal correspondents? A crown? A tiara? A slick? A sycophancy? Whatever it is, they can all be seen enjoying themselves mightily in Amol Rajan’s new documentary series, The Princes and the Press. Urged to divulge her sources, Camilla Tominey of the Daily Telegraph in particular looks like she might be about to faint with happiness (“No, no, no, Amol!” she doesn’t quite scream).
However, this is emphatically not to suggest that royal stories are the exclusive province of royal correspondents. “It did take someone like me,” says Dan Wootton, about the decision, when he was at the Sun, to break ranks with the palace specialists and tell readers all about the Queen’s bollocking of stroppy Harry (or was it stroppy Meghan?) before their wedding in 2018. Apparently, Wootton sees himself as an outsider, and while this may well be true – he works at GB News now, so he probably knows all about social exclusion – it also suggests that full-time royal corrs are insiders, which I regard as borderline preposterous. As Rajan sombrely notes, royal reporting is not “scripture”, by which he means, I suppose, that it is basically gossip, as delivered by a servant. (Not that he’s interested in gossip; no, he is preoccupied only with “how or why narratives emerge”.)
In the days and hours before The Princes and the Press screened, some parts of the media were in a right old flap. Buckingham Palace was, we were told, furious at the series’ suggestion of a briefing war between William and Harry. But I expect they’ll shut up now. Rajan’s first film returned, embarrassingly for the newspapers in question, to the phone-hacking scandal, having bagged an interview with a private eye who claims to have worked for the News of the World when Harry was dating Chelsy Davy. “I was greedy, I was into my cocaine,” he offered as an explanation for his rabid investigations into her private life (at the time, he wanted – needed – to know all about any STIs Davy might have had). And if the Queen really was ever cross, well, doubtless she’ll also be feeling much better now. If Harry at moments comes over like a spoilt brat, he’s still more sinned against than sinning. Some of the parasitical gargoyles on parade here only make their weird, royal semi-necrophilia seem all the more repellent by talking so very earnestly about it, as if they were reporting not the activities of a highly peculiar family, but Watergate or the My Lai massacre.
In this sense, these correspondents have all walked straight into Rajan’s trap. He was the editor of the Independent, they must have thought, he’ll understand, he’ll listen, he’ll take me seriously. But if he’s laughing at them inwardly – at Amanda Platell of the Daily Mail trying to sound cute rather than just plain bitchy; at Valentine Low of the Times reading out, cheerfully and without any obvious embarrassment, the copy he filed from Harry and Meghan’s wedding (“a love that burnt so fiercely it needed a health and safety warning”); at Omid Scobie, the Duchess of Sussex’s very favourite stenographer, paddling around in her dysfunctional family without his water wings – how on Earth to explain Rajan’s own, no less comical mode?
He seems to doubt anyone watching could have even the vaguest grasp not only of the basics of journalism, but of the English language itself. “She is a COLUMNIST,” he says, of Platell. “Which means she provides OPINION.” Hammy pauses, disappointed sighs, patronising explanations: he is very good on Today on BBC Radio 4, but here he sounds ridiculous, half-Hercule Poirot and half-Richard Madeley.
Of course – yeah, OK – I’m gripped. I’ll be stuck to the next episode like fly paper. Some horrible, kinky part of me does want to hear all about how Thomas Markle was photographed buying a toilet. I long to know which editors William has entertained to drinks, and whether Harry will press on with his various legal cases against the newspapers – it’s fascinating that Meghan’s lawyer, Jenny Afia of Schillings, appears in these films with the duchess’s agreement. But above all, I just cannot get enough of the pomposity, the oiliness and the cant that fills every moment; the shallow depths in which everyone is splashing so frantically. Like the worst party ever, it sends you to bed grateful: an inexpressible feeling of escape.
The Princes and the Press
BBC Two, aired Monday 22 November, 9pm; now on BBC iPlayer
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos