LONDON — In public, they always present a united front. But Prince Harry can tell a very different story about the British royal family and how they operate.
Harry’s explosive memoir, with damning accusations about the toxic relationship between the monarchy and the press, could accelerate the pace of change already taking place in the House of Windsor since the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Harry’s description of the royal family releasing unflattering information about other family members in exchange for positive coverage of himself is one of the most salacious allegations in his book, Spare, published last week. The prince singled out Camilla, wife of King Charles III, accusing her of giving private conversations to the media as she sought to rebuild her image after a long-running affair with Charles when he was heir to the throne.
The royal family and their staff, far from the unity they appear in public, are portrayed as sly rivals ready to backstab each other to make themselves or their bosses look better in the public eye. The palace Harry describes resembles a modern version of King Henry VIII’s court, where courtiers fought for the monarch’s favor and some lost their heads.
The book gives the impression of a British royal family so worried about the tabloid press that they have to make deals with journalists, says Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm: The Monarchy, the Media and the British Public. , 1932-53″. And the public, faced with this proposal, may think twice.
“I think there needs to be some sort of reboot, and we need to think hard about what the monarchy is, what role it plays in society,” says Owens, the historian. “Because this idea of ’we British taxpayers pay and in return they deliver’ is a really messed up and corrupting equation.”
The monarchy, which is largely funded by taxpayers, plays a largely ceremonial role in British society these days as a master of soft power. But supporters say the institution still plays an important role, uniting the country over a shared history and tradition, embodied both in the grandeur of royal ceremonies and in the daily work of royals as they open schools and hospitals and hand out awards. to those who serve the nation.
News coverage of the royal family generally falls into one of two categories: carefully orchestrated public appearances or sometimes chaotic stories about the private lives of royals based on unconfirmed sources.
But change may be at hand.
The history of colonialism—so closely intertwined with the crown—is being reexamined around the world. Protesters have destroyed or defaced statues in British cities, and internationally respected universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are changing their course offerings. All of this adds up to one thing: an institution that was once a symbol of the British Empire is under scrutiny like never before.
Charles, who became king after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, faces the challenge of modernizing Britain’s 1,000-year-old monarchy to ensure its survival. He has already said he plans to cut the number of working royals and reduce the cost of the monarchy.
It may have been long overdue, but it was delayed by one key factor: Elizabeth herself.
A personal attachment to the Queen meant that the monarchy’s role in British society was rarely discussed during her seven decades on the throne. Now that she is gone, the royal family faces questions about its relevance in today’s multicultural country, which looks very different from when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952.
In Elizabeth’s never-complain, never-explain world, the personal revelations in Harry’s book would be unthinkable. He describes his mental health issues following the 1997 car crash that killed his mother, Princess Diana. He talks about a physical altercation with his older brother, Prince William; shows how he lost his virginity; and describes the use of cocaine and cannabis.
“Spare” is Harry and his wife Meghan’s latest attempt to tell their own story after they left royal life and moved to California in 2020, citing what they saw as racist media treatment of Meghan and a lack of support from the palace
In the ghost-written memoir, Harry, 38, claims that Camilla developed connections with the British press and traded information on her way to becoming queen, essentially feeding unflattering stories about Harry and Meghan to the press in exchange for better coverage of herself.
The allegations are particularly sensitive because of Camilla’s role in the dramatic breakdown of Charles’ marriage to Diana. Although Camilla was initially shunned by many members of the public, she won a following by taking on a wide range of charity work and is credited with helping Charles appear less stuffy and more in tune with modern Britain.
Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover jumped to her defense, claiming Harry was just being thin-skinned.
“I would venture to suggest that some members of the royal family have been feeding stories to the press through their courtiers over the years, but it is absurd and naive to suggest that this was part of an organized attempt to destabilize Harry and Meghan,” he wrote. “Royals are not puppets of the press, because if they have any sense, they understand that they can not only be praised, but also beaten. The wise know how to take the rough with the smooth.”
But unlike Elizabeth, who famously issued a statement suggesting “some memories may differ” when faced with accusations of racism after Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2021, Buckingham Palace reacted to the first serious the crisis of Charles’s reign by silence.
This left Harry dominating the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, apparently being served tequila on a late-night American TV show and repeatedly talking about the dirty laundry at the House of Windsor.
Since this is not the first scandal to rock Buckingham Palace — Elizabeth’s uncle abdicated to marry an American divorcee, among other scandals — many who bought Harry’s book on Tuesday were confident the institution would weather the storm.
“They should just shrug it off and get on with being royalty,” said James Bradley, 61, as he bought a copy. “Since the Queen’s death, the royal family’s stock has never been higher in my lifetime and it’s only going to bounce back. In six months, we won’t talk about it.”
But Stephen Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, expects Harry’s revelations to push the palace towards greater transparency – perhaps more akin to other institutions such as the White House or the British prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street.
“He did us a favor by exposing the collusion, the conspiratorial nature of the relationship between the royal family and the British press,” Barnett says. “They will have to change the way they interact with the press. And that’s good. It’s good for the monarchy and it’s good for British society.’