Press and monarchy: no royal romance

June 16, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The furor ignited by Andrew Morton's book on the anxieties and suicidal tendencies of Britain's Princess of Wales has amused, dismayed and generally troubled British society.

Establishment figures publish disapproving essays about "Diana: Her True Story" and its serialization in the Sunday Times, as well as the hounding of the royal family in general by the press. One commentator has called it "the commerce in royal misery."

The royals may not be enjoying it, but if they need reassurance that they are a factor in the lives of their countrymen, they have it. The stunning sales of newspapers carrying the story prove it. The first installment of the Morton book came out June 7 and sold an extra 200,000 copies of the Sunday Times.

The controversy illuminates the relationship between two salient institutions in British life, the monarchy and the press. Both have played decisive roles in the history of the country. Both, in some part of themselves, live for the other.

A. John Barnes, a biographer of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and constitutional scholar, said of that interaction: "They feed off one another to some extent. The question now is has it become an unhealthy phenomenon? Maybe the monarchy is in a way regretting it has allowed this symbiotic relationship to grow."

The nature of that association, says another scholar, has changed in recent years, and the current controversy may indicate how.

"Until recently, it was a one-way relationship. The royal family wanted publicity on its own terms. Whenever the press decided to change those terms, the family responded with resentment and in most cases, silence," says Peter Pelzer, Gladstone Professor of Government at All Souls Colleges in Oxford University.

Professor Pelzer believes that at some point in the past few years, the queen decided the family had to take the initiative, "to have its own publicity strategy."

"The recent film on the queen's working day was an example of the way the royal family has been trying to take the high ground with regard to the media, that it is trying to dictate some of the agenda," he says.

Did Diana encourage or connive in the production of the Morton book? Did she encourage, or not discourage, her friends from speaking to him of her problems? Was this another expression of that new strategy?

Professor Pelzer is not prepared to say it was, though it had all the earmarks of it, as there are more than a few indications that the Princess of Wales is not a woman who was ambushed by an unscrupulous journalist, that some of her friends and family were willing participants in the whole affair. She has never condemned the book, nor let it be known she disapproves of it.

The scandal, if that's what it is, has yielded three principal villains. Villain No. 1 is Andrew Morton, who wrote the book

which said that the princess inexpertly attempted suicide on several occasions, suffered from bulimia, and doesn't get along with her husband Charles, the future king of England.

Villain No. 2 is the man who published it, Michael O'Mara.

Villain No. 3 is Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times, which serialized the story and, because it is considered a quality newspaper in the British context, lent the book a respectability it would not have enjoyed had it been printed in a tabloid.

But there are other people whose activities have been overlooked who go without blame. How about the part played by the late Earl Spencer, Diana's father? According to the Sunday Observer, he sold 80 intimate photographs of his daughter from the family album to the "sharp-witted O'Mara."

Then there is Diana herself, who seems incapable of turning away from a camera lens. Every time she goes somewhere the tabloid newspapers are notified by telephone by someone knowledgeable about her schedule. Last week she visited Carolyn Bartholomew -- her old friend and an acknowledged source for Mr. Morton -- then stood around outside her house and let the cameramen have their shots virtually until they were out of film.

There is still another putative villain in the back of people's minds, one more removed from the center. He is Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sunday Times and the Sun, both of which have made a lot of money on the book and the scandal.

Mr. Murdoch is an Australian who went to school here. He is accused of having republican sympathies, and trying to bring the British monarchy down by bringing it into disrepute.

He is not the first of this kind.

Dr. David R. Starkey, an expert on the modern monarchy as a form of government, from the London School of Economics, insists Britain has seen many, many Murdochs in its history.

During the 19th century and before, "there was a powerful republican movement within the press. The monarchy was denounced at every turn, every scandal in the royal family was pried into."

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