• U.S.

Royalty vs. the Pursuing Press: In Stalking Diana, Fleet Street Strains the Rules

23 minute read
John Skow

Someone will do it. Some rube of an American photographer, strangling in the only necktie he owns, will shout, “Hey, Queen!” Some reporter, his thought processes numbed by majesty, will panic and address her first, which is Not Done, and then compound his blunder by asking her views on Prince Andrew’s American girlfriend, former Soft-Porn Actress Koo Stark. Somebody will break commonly observed protocol—royals are not to be photographed taking nourishment—and shoot a picture of her doing the unthinkable to a Parker House roll.

No such amiably meant awkwardness, however, could spoil the monthlong royal road show that began last week in Jamaica and proceeded to the Cayman Islands, to Mexico, and on toward the wilds of California (see following story). Queen Elizabeth II is nearly unflappable as star and stage manager of the Windsor family troupe, and her husband Prince Philip, though he sometimes indulges in grumpy asides, has a useful comic gift and a scene-saving knack for improvisation. (Jamaicans last week admiringly recalled an occasion during the royal couple’s 1975 visit when one profoundly confused male official approached the Queen and, instead of bowing, curtsied. The Prince, to help the man out of his embarrassment, good-humoredly curtsied back.) Queen and consort played expertly to easy audiences in the Caribbean, and faced a Mexican public eager for distraction from its peso troubles. At week’s end the royal couple could look forward to their accustomed favorable reviews from royalty-dazzled democrats in the U.S.

How welcome the good notices will be. The fact is that those at home have caused great consternation in recent weeks. And what seems most surprising is that much of the press rancor has lashed about the lovely head of the nation’s new royal sweetheart, the Princess of Wales. Fleet Street’s raucous tabloids, whose scuffling reporters and photographers first caught and transmitted the “Shy Di” craze, now clearly believe that the Princess is the creation and rightful property of the press. The newspapers praise or torment her according to their own royal whims, and rage when she balks at posing prettily. Diana is in the acutely uncomfortable position of being the world’s most gawked-at celebrity, “bigger than Streisand, bigger than the Beatles,” according to veteran London Sun Photographer Arthur Edwards. Fanciful stories about her that allege illness, marital squabbles or other bad behavior are weapons in British newspaper circulation wars. Freelance “monkeys”—paparazzi—can make unexpected windfalls with snatched pictures.

Anyone can do anything, in fact, except throttle down a vast publicity engine that at times has seemed to be howling out of control. Britain has never seen alarums as sustained as these before. Since Diana appeared on the scene, the unwritten rules between the palace and the press have collapsed under the stampede for news. The palace press office has appealed to editors, but any truce that is called gets broken quickly. “Chasing royals is like a drug, an addiction,” says Writer Ashley Walton of the Daily Express. The Queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, mutters about sanctions, but the Tower of London is open only to tourists, not prisoners. “A new wave of hysteria has gripped the more sensational press,” he laments. “Anything to do with any aspect of the royal family, no matter how minute, is treated as a huge news story.”

The royal family, meanwhile, can do little except schedule their usual tours and hope for less capricious coverage: this month the Queen and Philip in the New World; next month Charles, Diana and Baby William in Australia and New Zealand; Anne in Pakistan in May, where she will visit a refugee camp near the Afghan border. Last week it was disclosed that while Diana stayed behind and carried on with her regular schedule, Charles had just spent a week milking cows, delivering a calf and building stone fences on a tenant farm he owns in Cornwall. At the end he gave an exclusive interview to Donald Simpson, agriculture writer for the Western Morning News. The labor had been hard, he said, and his back hurt, but the farm breakfasts had been splendid and the rural values sound. He said he came to know the cows well “by their udders. I think being here has restored my sanity.” Lest Fleet Street think its clamoring threatened to unhinge him, he added, “Being on the land does help one get a sense of proportion much better than being stuck in the city.” Charles is an outdoorsman, and the farm stay was thoroughly in character, but it is also true that his week evoked the kind of symbolism that maintains the necessary royal illusion: that his family speaks for Britain, though not about government or anything else controversial; that they are mysterious and unapproachable, though much like me and thee; and that their position is awesome, though they can no longer singlehanded send armies into the field.

Charles’ performance was good, sound, royal theater, of the kind not seen by the British in some months. Lately, in fact, the Queen has seemed to be presiding over a soap opera, a kind of intricate “Palace Dallas,” as the joke now goes in London. Even the birth in June of a healthy baby boy, Prince William, to Charles and Diana did not prevent last year from taking on the quality of sloppily written royal melodrama.

The Queen’s boudoir at Buckingham Palace was invaded early one morning by a man who, weirdly, sat on her bed making conversation. Her personal bodyguard resigned after confessing to consorting with a homosexual prostitute. Her Majesty’s second son Prince Andrew, 23, flew a helicopter in the Falkland Islands war, then returned to resume a romance with the beauteous Koo, who had appeared nude in such films as Cruel Passion. When the two tried to sneak off to Mustique, the Caribbean hideaway where Princess Margaret had dallied with Pop Singer Roddy Llewellyn a few years ago, they shocked right-thinking Britons. The Queen Mother, 82, is a great favorite of the press and, indeed, of everyone in Britain, and the Queen and Philip are treated with solid respect. But their only daughter Princess Anne, 32, is surly to the press and has earned the nickname “Her Royal Rudeness.” She and her husband Captain Mark Phillips were the center of a swirl of divorce rumors, thus far apparently baseless, and she horrified everyone while on her own American tour by refusing to gurgle appreciatively—growl was what she did—over the birth of Sweet William. “Naff off,” an upper-class vulgarism, is gaining popularity around the world largely through Anne’s efforts.

It was the Princess of Wales, however—Shy Di, the radiant, misty darling of the tabloids—who drew the blackest headlines. Only seven months after William’s birth, the Princess was being criticized as a “spoilt brat,” a “fiend” and a “monster.” Charles was said to be desolate that a divorce was not possible for the futureKing of England. Diana’s spendthrift shopping, reportedly at the rate of some $1,500 a week, supposedly dismayed him. Her increasing thinness, which had seemed enchantingly graceful, was briefly depicted as anorexia nervosa. Then an American psychiatrist warned that Diana, on the basis of a stress evaluation test he had invented, had “an 80% chance” of becoming ill. The press became incensed at her behavior on a skiing holiday with Charles in Liechtenstein and Austria. In defiance, she pulled her ski cap down over her forehead and refused to pose sweetly for pictures.

Nasty stuff, even for the lowbrow British tabloids, which are famous for their gaudy misbehavior. The main disturbers of the peace, jostling brashly for sensation and circulation among London’s ten major dailies and eight major Sunday papers, are the Sun and Star, the Express, the Mirror and the News of the World.

But London’s newspapers were only part of the journalistic fun house that Lady Diana Spencer wandered into so unconcernedly when she began her romance with Prince Charles and the rest of the world. Vast numbers of commoners, especially in countries that are safely republican, clearly are nostalgic monarchists, if only at the Cinderella level, and they like to read about royalty. Two magazines in Britain, Majesty and Monthly Royalty, and one in France, Point de Vue—Images du Monde, print stories about nothing else. Publisher Peter Shephard of Majesty, which is aimed at the fiercely royalist “granny market,” said that his staid publication (1981 circ. 55,000) tried a mildly critical story on Princess Anne a few months ago, drew fire in quavering handwriting from irate readers and hastily returned to its usual reverence.

Until only a few years before Diana became a worldwide obsession, however, royal-watching was no more than a part-time, modestly profitable journalistic sideline, like writing about stamp collecting. Princess Margaret’s doomed love affair in the mid-1950s with a divorced man, Group Captain Peter Townsend, and Grace Kelly’s excessive wedding in 1956 were exceptions, early examples of royal-watching carried round the bend of lunacy, but each story eventually died a natural death after months of gorgeous blather.

Nothing of the sort is happening to the press frenzy surrounding the Princess of Wales, which shows no sign of dying either a natural death or one imposed by the exasperated Michael Shea. One reason may be that, at a time when television is creating no new personalities and movie actors labor to be anticelebrities, readers and feeders of the popular press in Europe and the U.S. are hungry for steady coverage of glittering personages. A succession of less than solemn stories has kept royals in the news: there was the pretty but too available Princess Caroline of Monaco and her succession of lounge lizards, The Netherlands’ Prince Bernhard and his taste for Lockheed money, Princess Margaret and her unsuitable companions and, until two years ago, Prince Charles circulating among polo matches with an impressive succession of smashing young women.

Yet these are ordinary immortals, not superstars. Only Jackie Kennedy Onassis has attracted the kind of attention that now afflicts Diana. Some sort of strange myth-making or myth-breaking is going on, half real and instinctive, and half calculated and phony. Suzanne Lowry, a writer for London’s Sunday Times, asks, “What is this endless fairytale we are all so avidly following, the press eagerly producing and the palace so concerned to censor, or at least edit? . . . What is a Princess? What is one for?. . . The best answer seems to be that a Princess is for looking at. Neither Diana, nor any other member of the royal family has much function when out of sight. Without press coverage, the royal family would be little more than rich, overdressed people in big houses.”

Lowry continues with a distinctly unsettling truth: “What [Diana] clearly didn’t understand when she took that fateful step, with all the boldness of an upper-class Alice, through the royal looking glass, was that she could never get back into that nice cozy private nursery again . . . As James Whitaker [the Mirror’s royal-watcher], her self-confessed slave and hack-in-chief, might say with a nudge, ‘You didn’t know you were marrying us too, did you?’ ”

This has some fairly horrifying implications—till death do us part, for one—but it is so close to character that it is too bad that Whitaker, at 42 an acknowledged star among royal-watchers, did not really say it. The dapper Whitaker has concentrated on the royal family for 14 years—in the process, he says contentedly, traveling around the world several times and moving at increasingly fatter salaries from the Daily Mail to the Express to the Sun to the Star, and finally to the Mirror. He likes the royals. “They all mean a great deal to me,” he says. He looks to the Queen for comfort, he says, “because she’s jolly solid. We’ll miss a story if it’s going to upset the Queen.” No evidence is offered that anyone has done so. As for the other royals, reverence has its limits. “I feel the public has a right to know anything we can tell them. My job is to report every facet of the royal beings in as much detail as possible. They are fair game.”

When game is afoot, royal-watchers routinely engage in round-the-clock stakeouts, read lips with binoculars, suborn servants, hire little girls to give flowers to the royals and big girls (in the case of Prince Charles in his bachelor years) to give them kisses, chase their prey at crazy speeds in high-powered cars. There has been so much of this mad motoring that the wonder is that no member of the royal family or the public has been killed. One reporter has even been known to steal a colleague’s photos. Others lay out misleading clues to send teams from rival papers in the wrong direction. Some of this is cheerful lunacy, and Photographer Steve Wood, a legendary Daily Express stalker, says he heard from a footman that “Prince Philip used to make jokes every morning at breakfast about us. The royals spend hours talking about the pranks we pull and the ways they elude us.” Indeed, the Queen is said to enjoy the popular paper and latest speculations about her family.

“Some of the things I do, I am not keen on myself for doing,” Whitaker admits. He has a clear conscience, however, about the anorexia story, which ran under the banner IS IT ALL GETTING TOO MUCH FOR DIANA? RUBBISH! countered the rubbishy News of the World. Thunderous denunciations of one another’s outrages are standard among Fleet Street papers, and no one takes offense, because it is all part of the game that readers follow with relish. Whitaker came out of the anorexia episode thinking well of himself. As the weeks went by and Diana did not appear to have the disease, he was able to take credit, and did, for preserving her health by a timely warning.

Author Robert Lacey (Majesty) suggests that the press, with Whitaker very much in the lead, also deserves credit for forcing Charles to marry Diana. It is not simply that in the touchy period before the engagement, as Whitaker admits in a book about the royal courtship (Settling Down), that he gave her fatherly advice for dealing with the press, including himself (“There will be times when I will ask you a question to which I need an answer desperately. I am telling you now, don’t answer me”). Prince Charles was over 30, explains Lacey, and “his image as an adventurous young bachelor sowing his wild oats was getting worn out. It was the opinion of Fleet Street that he should settle down and do his duty. The press pushed Diana as a girlfriend beyond the reality of the situation in the early stages. Whitaker fell in love with her.” The merciless over-coverage of Diana (including, Whitaker boasts, an 80-m.p.h. car caper in which he drove alongside the car she was driving while a photographer snapped her picture) showed the English public a maiden so sweet and wistful that the Prince would have seemed a blackguard had he failed to propose.

It was this same improbable Cupid, however, who was part of the hit team that smudged the pregnant Diana in the Bahamas a year ago. (A hit in Fleet Street lingo is a good story, and a smudge is a photo.) Armed with jungle gear and survey maps, Whitaker and Photographer Kenny Lennox entered the jungle at 5:55 one morning, just before sunup. They were on a patch of land opposite the beach where Charles and Diana were staying. Says Whitaker: “We crawled, carrying a lens the size of a bloody howitzer for a solid hour and a half. By 7:50 a.m. we were in position, a half-mile across the water from the beach. Finally Diana appeared at 11:20. When she turned up in a bikini, it was too good to be true. We also knew we’d be in trouble.”

Lennox started shooting. “Diana was rubbing suntan oil on the Prince’s back. Sensational! I kept saying to Kenny, ‘I’ve never done anything as intrusive in my life.’ But it was a journalistic high. I’ve never had such a buzz.”

In Nassau, Whitaker wired the pictures to London, through New York City Editors who saw them im New York, he marvels, made offers totaling £150,000. The huge figure is believable. Picture agency editors are more secretive than nerve-gas manufacturers, but the rumor is that one big European weekly paid $35,000 for one of the bikini shots. Less sensational photos of Diana might bring anything from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the exclusivity and news value of a commodity that fluctuates like pork bellies. A top freelancer, among the dozen or so covering the royals full time, may make as much as $150,000 a year. Whitaker admits to making less than $80,000.

When the Sun and the Star ran the pictures of the royal tummy naked and protruding, the expected protests lit up the switchboards, and the standard apologies were printed. The papers said jointly that they had run the photos out of “deep affection” for Diana. The Sun ran the photos a second time, with the apology, so that everyone would know what was being discussed.

Creeping about in the undergrowth is not the style of the Daily Mail’s influential gossip columnist Nigel Dempster. He claims that he attends many parties that royals do, and when he is leaving he sees Whitaker in the bushes. He insists that he is not a royal-watcher but a “social policeman.” About the time that Whitaker diagnosed anorexia, however, Dempster indulged himself with a lofty and fairly encyclopedicdenunciation of Diana’s faults. It was he who said that she was spoiled, fiendish and a monster, that she was spending too much money on clothes shaming the nation’s upper classes by having temper tantrums that drove staff to resign, and making Charles “desperately unhappy.”

The rubbishy News of the World called Dempster’s outburst rubbish too. Like Whitaker, he is unruffled. Royal-watchers tend to identify themselves with the family and even imagine that they are on intimate terms. “She should be brought up short,” the avuncular Dempster explains. “The message got through to Diana that she cannot behave badly and that she’d better start pulling up her socks. Since then, she has been out all day, visiting hospitals and talking to children. She is showing more interest in Charles’ hobbies. She is wearing the same clothes over again. What I am saying to her is, ‘I know you are having a difficult time, but best to start behaving before the hatchet-type journalists start getting on to you.’ Hopefully, that has been averted now.”

Of course, nothing had been averted except a peaceful winter for the royals. Palace efforts to bargain with the Fleet Street scamps—a photo opportunity in exchange for privacy over the year-end holidays—dissolved in futility as the pack went hallooing off in all directions after Koo, Andrew, Charles and Diana. Koo had shown surprising staying power for a princely romance, despite speculative QUEEN BANS KOO and BUST-UP AS ANDY IS TOLD TO DROP HIS GIRL headlines in the Sun, a journal that occasionally runs its royals coverage down the side of what is called its “tits-and-bums” page, in giddy proximity to the precariously cantilevered breasts and shyly undraped buttocks of naked models.

“I can reveal that . . . Andrew would dearly love to settle down with Koo, 26, and raise a family,” wrote Harry Arnold in the Sun. This was for public consumption; privately, Arthur Edwards, the veteran Sun photographer, said, “We can’t have Princess Koo as an example to the nation’s youth.”

In any case, the lady was proving royally elusive. Photographer Steve Wood, who had spotted Koo and Randy Andy, as the press took to calling the Prince, on their flight to Mustique last fall, never got a shot of the pair. He tried from a chartered yacht, tried heroically while water-skiing behind a motor boat, and tried in jungle stakeouts, where, he admitted dolefully, “the police always found me.” Some two dozen other journalists in expensively chartered watercraft also flopped.

Back in London this winter, things have not been much better. Fast-moving Freelance Photographer Mauro Carraro, 23, who quit hunting crime shots 18 months ago to concentrate on the much more profitable ambushing of royals, finally got a picture of Andrew that was good enough for the Mirror’s front page. Carraro hustles hard for his art and the $25,000 or so a year it brings him. During one brief period this winter he broke off the chase for Koo at the Queen’s retreat at Sandringham and flew to Switzerland, where Koo was rumored to be skiing. Then it was back to London, and off on a fast rumble to Sandringham again, in the sort of automotive projectile that is essential for royal-chasing, a Golf GTI that Carraro says will go more than 100 m.p.h. Diana was supposed to be there taking riding lessons (family tradition suggests that a Windsor Queen should be able to ride, but the Princess, who fell from a horse when she was small, has no love for the sport). Carraro’s information was accurate. After dodging hordes of amateur cameramen and the police, and being scared silly by the Queen’s pack of search dogs as he hid with two other cameramen in bushes near the Sandringham riding fields, he clicked off $1,500 worth of shots of Diana, the Queen and Charles on horseback. “Charles saw us, and he was fuming,” Carraro recalled happily. “We ran like hell. There are a lot of fast moves in this business.”

The $1,500 smudge paid expenses and kept Carraro in motion. After a day at home he flew back to Switzerland to stalk Charles and Diana on their ski trip. But for Carraro and several dozen other English Continental photographers, the assignment paid off only in vast Alps of aggro (British slang for aggravation). The Princess of Wales by now had reached her choking point. She refused to play her role as royal photo model. After a week of confusion and rancor, the London tabs had little to show for their efforts except a few murmurs from Prince Charles (“Please darling, please darling”), some shots made immediately after he said, “Now I’m going to blow my nose for everyone to photograph,” and huffily written stories of scary auto chases and photographers being roughed up by bodyguards.

The hunters and, presumably, the hunted went home in sour moods, in time to read News of the World headlines about Diana’s supposed onrushing emotional breakdown. The story quoted University of Washington Psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Holmes as saying that Diana had an 80% chance of becoming ill. On his Holmes-Rahe scale, which rates such stressful occurrences as marriage (50), trouble with in-laws (29) and change of financial state (38), Diana scored “an alarming 417.” This put her in peril, the doctor was quoted as saying, of ailments ranging from “a prolonged cold to an obsessive-compulsive disorder such as the need to see your shoes precisely arranged.”

It was, perhaps, time to reflect on a comment by Lacey, one of the calmest and most benign of the journalists who write about the monarchy: “One must not reveal too much of the mystery because the royals have faults, dishonesties, nastinesses like anyone else. A lot of us happen to think that the illusions and idealization which surround this family is quite a healthy thing. Everyone needs vehicles for their social dreams.”

The tabloids have a ready rebuttal to this this common common sense, sense, based on the scalding embarrassment that Fleet Street still feels about ignoring the love affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, which resulted in the King’s abdication. The Sun’s Arthur Edwards says that “never again” will the British press keep silent as they did in 1936. When Wallis Simpson waited for her divorce in Ipswich, the American papers ran the story. Fleet Street wasn’t running it because the press barons had made a gentlemen’s agreement with the King. “That was in fact censorship,” says Edwards. But he also admits: “This is not a personal war against the palace press office. It is a question of what makes money. It’s about circulation of papers. It’s business.”

Yes, indeed. At week’s end business had taken Mauro Carraro and much of the rest of Fleet Street’s merry band to Mayport, Fla. Why had they crowded into this unlikely outpost? It seemed that Prince Andrew’s ship, the aircraft carrier Invincible, was tying up at the naval station there so that the crew could rest up a bit, maybe get a look at U.S. military procedure. Tell us another, the press was thinking. Was it coincidence that Saturday would be his 23rd birthday, and that — aha! — Koo’s mother had a house in Venice, across the state? Hadn’t Koo been spotted in New York City a few days before? Andrew fenced warily at a two-minute pressconference the day before. No, he didn’t have plans for the weekend, “and I wouldn’t tell all of you if I did.” And, no, he wouldn’t buy the reporter drinks on his birthday.

Like most of the press capering, this was part of a strange, wistful, almost innocent quest for glimpses of beings about whose private selves, despite all of the lenses that have been trained on them, very little is known. Andrew and his royal relatives are well-subsidized, and perhaps should not complain about occasional aggro. Snatched photos and nonsensical stories do very little serious harm. Until, of course, they cross some unmarked line of intrusiveness and cruelty. It is not unreasonable to worry about the pressure of incessant press coverage on Diana, whose lack of the lifelong experience with public exposure that a born and bred royal would have has made her a special case. It is not foolish to point out that the monarchy would be damaged if Diana were hurt. “Yes, but what is she really like?” is a question that should not take precedence over all humane considerations of privacy. How to protect royal privacy is not at all certain. What is clear is that to Britons, the palace is no house of cards. Their Queen of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, and future King and Queen of Hearts are as solidly in place in public affection as were their forebears of a century ago, when Fleet Street minded its manners a little better. —By John Skow. Reported by Bonnie Angelo and Mary Cronin/London with other bureaus

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com