Last week in Italy, I was in a modest motor boat when its local owner
suddenly realised that we were trailing behind a substantial, but not
grand, vessel owned by the Dutch royal family.
On board was Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands: only the discreet
prescence of two security boats gave the game away. But as both boats
entered Porto Ercole where she has a villa, no-one showed the slightest
interest. Queen Beatrix is regarded as just another visiting foreigner.
She shops in the market. Her privacy is not invaded.
There was no mention of her or her family in the pages of the
extraordinary Italian scandal sheets, which bulged with long lens photos
of Italian starlets in various states of undress in seaside locations -
and still managed to make space for photos of Princess Diana and Fergie.
It is now pretty clear that the Royal family, led by the Queen, want
their privacy back, and that the Dutch model would suit them fine - most
of the time. How to tame the media is a key issue in the now continuous
review of the future being undertaken by the monarchy.
The Queen’s hawkishness in dealing with individual grouses is apparent,
whether it is manifested by punishing the BBC for the Panorama interview
with Princess Diana by sharing the Christmas broadcast with ITV;
disputing, through the channels of the PCC, Business Age’s sloppy
assessments of her wealth; or trying to ban certain press photographers
from the public footpath perimeters of Balmoral while she is on her
summer holiday. There is no easy answer. Other photographers will
materialise to take the places of those removed. The monarch of a
country cannot hide away and simply pop up to deliver a moral lecture
at Christmas. And it is impossible to wipe the slate clean, to return to
a state of media virginity.
The problem is that the monarchy made a decision to use the media in a
controlled way during the 1960s to forge a link with the public and
fudge the real issue of the loss of Imperial power. It miscalculated
badly in the image it offered.
I recently viewed the first Royal film made 27 years ago: its folksy
focus on the family at Balmoral is amazing. The country has been rightly
mesmerised by the unravelling of the myth, assisted by years of accurate
tabloid news reporting. But the best way to avoid unwanted coverage is
to be low key and boring. If the Royal family is pared down there are
fewer to misbehave. The tentative policy of privatising the monarchy
could form the basis for a greater distinction between Royals as rich
private citizens and Royals performing public duties.
But will the price be too high? Prince Charles, after all, has already
complained of the media ignoring his official engagements. Would he
really relish the day the British public just shrugs when he cycles by?