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Future of the Monarchy: How toxic is the Royal Family's relationship with the press?

The monarchy’s relationship with the press has rarely been under as much scrutiny as it is today.

Yahoo’s royal executive editor, Omid Scobie, asks Yahoo’s ‘Future of the Monarchy’ panel, whether, in the age of social media the Royal Family still need the press and dives into their thoughts on the allegations made by Prince Harry about the royal households, which he claims regularly leak stories to make each other look bad.

With the royals firmly part of the culture wars, can reforming their relationship with the press get the monarchy back on track?

The 'Future of the Monarchy' was hosted by Yahoo in April 2023 shortly before the coronation of King Charles III.

Joining Omid were author and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, Catherine Mayer; King Charles’ biographer and royal editor at The Evening Standard Robert Jobson; and journalist and broadcaster Afua Hagan.

Watch the full clip above

Video transcript

OMID SCOBIE: The royal family's had a long and complicated and tempestuous relationship with the British media. But perhaps never before has there been such antagonism on display as the past three years. Most notable are Prince Harry's claims that negative stories about him were leaked by aides from other royal households in order to benefit members of the family higher up the line of succession. Harry calls this "the invisible contract."

But now, these claims, which the Palace have still refused to comment on, are in the public domain. And the relationship between the press and the Royals is under the spotlight like never before. So Robert, as the royal editor of "The Evening Standard" and the royal correspondent for over three decades, how would you describe the relationship between the press, or a member of the Royal Rota that covers it, and the Palace?

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, first of all, the Royal Rota is simply a way of getting some access. Before, it used to-- when I started at "The Sun," we had the PA. It was the only people on that Rota.

Now, at least, they give access to some of the Fleet Street reporters and those [INAUDIBLE] ones. The national newspapers will report somewhat boring information about what they're doing. So all this stuff in Harry's book where he's-- has been overdramatized. That, I would say, number one.

And the Rota involves photographers, too, that are simply there to take the picture. And they then pass that picture around to all the different places so that you haven't got 17 photographers inside a royal job. It's slightly dull. It's not as dramatic or wonderful as it's been painted by Harry. It's boring.

But basically, that's what they do. So when you go and cover a job in Skegness of William and Kate in an ice cream parlor, you've only got one photographer, one reporter, and one radio man. That's it. That's basically it.

But the way it was described by Harry was like something out of a fantasy shop. The other thing I would say is that the relationship with the media, at the moment-- look, when you've got a member of the royal family and they're suing every newspaper in town, it's not going to be-- it's not going to be a great relationship.

And I think that that's damaging not only the relationship between the Sussexes and the newspapers but also the Windsors and the newspapers because they're going to be in this game of polarization, as well, where you've got a pantomime villain and a pantomime hero. And that's where we're at at the moment. It's all a little bit-- if it wasn't so serious, it would be laughable.

OMID SCOBIE: There is, of course, Catherine, the side of royal reporting that it's just the Rota. But as we've spoken at large about today, it's also about briefings and that sort of on-background information that comes from the Palace. A lot of the time, as we've seen, that's been about other members of the royal family rather than the ones that they're working for. So what Harry has described may have been sort of called "overexaggerated" by some members of the press, there is truth within that, as well.

CATHERINE MAYER: Oh, there's a lot of truth in it. I mean, yes, he got lots of details about how the media works wrong. I didn't find that surprising at all because again, Planet Windsor-- how people-- but it's not just the Royals in that case. If you talk to celebrities who are relentlessly in the public eye, they often don't actually understand the media. They just suffer from it, which is a different thing.

On the other hand, he does know perfectly well that the hacking scandal started because-- it was uncovered because of the hacking of royal phones of aides and, in fact, Prince William.

ROBERT JOBSON: And other journalists, including myself.

CATHERINE MAYER: Well, yes. I mean, it went-- but it went very broadly.

ROBERT JOBSON: They need the money.

CATHERINE MAYER: Yes, but my point about that is, the hacking scandal was the harbinger of something that we need to take into account here, which was an overall change and, in fact, decline in what's termed mainstream media, that mainstream media has been losing the economic model that sustained it and thrashing around looking for alternatives. And some of those alternatives involved kind of grasping for the social-media platforms that were undermining them and the online world that was undermining them and becoming more and more clickbaity.

ROBERT JOBSON: It is related to a point of time, though. Isn't this sort of 20-odd years ago because the media has changed a lot in that 20 years.

CATHERINE MAYER: Yes, so--

ROBERT JOBSON: Instead, it might be out of date for him to make these illegal claims because we're talking about-- they're lost into time-- about 2001, aren't they? They're not the 2023--

OMID SCOBIE: A crime is a crime. And although the techniques are different today, it's still a moat that--

ROBERT JOBSON: The techniques were very different. But I don't think people understand that.

CATHERINE MAYER: I'm not trying to prejudge his cases, though I certainly understand why he's bringing them. What I'm talking about is overall, the media environment has changed. And one of the things that I find really depressing is how bad-- I mean, royal reporting is a really tough job. Most people don't understand how hard it is because of how limited access is.

They think of it as a branch of showbiz reporting or something. It isn't. It's really tough.

But it has declined. The standards of journalism across the board have declined. I'm not saying anything about anyone here present. I'm not pointing fingers. What I'm saying--

ROBERT JOBSON: Oh, I think they've improved.

CATHERINE MAYER: Oh, God, I don't. I mean, you look at the--

ROBERT JOBSON: You look in the tabloid press in the '80s and '90s. Come on. They were one of the more lost--

OMID SCOBIE: I think we've lost the paparazzi culture. We've lost some stalking that we've seen the past. And we've-- and voicemail hacking is no longer technically possible. But I think that there are other practices that go on behind the scenes.

CATHERINE MAYER: But also, we haven't lost paparazzi culture. "The Daily Mail" derives a huge amount of its income, still, from the sidebar of shame. And it is absolutely still there. It's just that people get the photos on their phone. So paparazzis are less prevalent than they were.

But one of the other things is the broadsheets-- the sort of so-called quality end of journalism-- have actually become more like tabloids. Tabloids may have lifted, in your terms, in terms of what-- but there has been, I think, overall, not just a decline in journalism--

ROBERT JOBSON: You see there's been a dumbing down, too.

CATHERINE MAYER: But there's been dumbing down, but polarization-- we're back on that culture wars thing. And it used to be that if you were on-- I was on "Time" magazine for a very long time. And we had to attempt a kind of distanced appraisal of things. As a journalist, you saw your role-- you probably didn't recognize your own via the prejudices you brought into things as well as you might have done. But you, nevertheless, attempted to judge things in a sort of analytical way, not in a personal way.

Whereas, like, with royal reporting, I mean, I was on a radio show the other day with somebody who's a royal biographer. And she was going, I can't forgive Harry for this. And I actually said to her, it's not your business to forgive him. You're supposed to be a bloody journalist.

ROBERT JOBSON: You're quite right, yeah.

OMID SCOBIE: Absolutely. Afua--

ROBERT JOBSON: And we should need that step back to appraise the situation. I can't forgive her-- who cares what you think?

CATHERINE MAYER: Yeah, I don't suppose he does.

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, I don't suppose-- no, he doesn't.

OMID SCOBIE: Afua, we've seen Prince Harry launch sort of legal cases against the Mirror Group, the publishers of "The Daily Mail," and "The Sun" for phone-hacking cases going back into the past but some as recently as 2016, in terms of illegal newsgathering practices. Now, one thing he's spoken about is some of the attempts that his family made to sort of stop him from taking those moves, ultimately because they threatened the relationships that they had with the press. How important do you think that relationship is with the press for the royal family today? And do they need it still?

AFUA HAGAN: Oh my goodness, they definitely still need it. They absolutely still need it because they want their-- they want positive stories about themselves to be out there to justify the palaces that they have, the coronation that everyone's just about to pay for. They want to be seen to be doing good things, going to foodbanks, doing charity work, Kate talking about her Early Years plan. They need the press on their side to be able to deliver their good news, and they want their good news to be what people are talking about.

But unfortunately, like you so rightly said, as well, a lot of the broadsheets have definitely gone into some dumbing down, whether it's stories about letters that were sent three years ago-- I don't know why we're finding out about these things now. As well as people in the Royal Rota going to these charitable events and covering things like the coronation, they do have to find their own stories. And so it's really, really important for the royal family to have positive press on their side to counteract all the other stories that will come out.

And it's really important that certain palaces have nice briefings and make sure that the nice pictures of them go out, that they're written about positively because then they'll be more popular with the public. And the royal family exists because of the people. So it's fundamental that they keep the press on their side-- absolutely.

OMID SCOBIE: The newspaper business is obviously shrinking. Less people are buying print papers than ever before. Some might argue that the royal family-- the oxygen keeping some of those papers alive. Now, if the royal family wanted to, they could take that away at any time. So why do you think they haven't tried to sort of find a different way to connect with the public that isn't through the pages of "The Daily Mail" or "The Mirror" or "The Telegraph" or whoever.

AFUA HAGAN: I mean, but what about when--

CATHERINE MAYER: But they have tried social-- they've tried social media. And we all know how dangerous that is. But also, when you see-- I mean, it's really funny because for years, I've advocated for the Royals to talk directly and not be shielded. But then, of course, you had Andrew's car crash interview. And that's probably set--

ROBERT JOBSON: When they talk directly to the-- they do it so badly.

CATHERINE MAYER: They do it very badly.

OMID SCOBIE: It's where all the mystique goes out the window.

ROBERT JOBSON: The reading list--

AFUA HAGAN: Media training.

CATHERINE MAYER: But I also think one of the problems-- and again, it links to the dumbing down-- is this habit of covering the Royals like a branch of showbiz, which is intensified in the age of "The Crown" and all the films about the Royals. And actually, it's this enormous institution that takes tons of public money, that has soft powers, that has actual sort of head of state duties and constitutional roles. We should be scrutinizing it. And they should enable that scrutiny.

And then, you can start to detach that from the members of the family, whose private lives should remain private unless they're Prince Andrew.

AFUA HAGAN: [CHUCKLING]

ROBERT JOBSON: Such a [INAUDIBLE]. But I mean, the fact is on that, as you said, is absolutely correct. But we cannot separate, as some people like to do, the royal family from parliament and parliament from the royal family. We have a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. It is the system. That is the system of government of this country.

It has evolved over 1,000 years. It's evolved very much so since the interregnum. But the bottom line is-- and the bottom line is, is it is government. And therefore, it needs to be more transparent.

And what Catherine is saying they need to take on board now because otherwise, this sense of a secret society, which is what it seems to give the impression of, would not be tolerated if this was a republic.

AFUA HAGAN: But unfortunately, as well, the royal family cannot be separated from showbiz and gossip because there's so much--

ROBERT JOBSON: It should be.

AFUA HAGAN: It should be, but it can't be.

OMID SCOBIE: But it's part of the attraction.

ROBERT JOBSON: No, but that's what guys like you-- I don't agree with that. I don't think that's true.

AFUA HAGAN: But the thing is, the dysfunctionality feeds into all of that. You talked about "The Crown," which is on, and then we have other things that are happening--

ROBERT JOBSON: But they're human beings.

AFUA HAGAN: --in their lives that are also playing out. I mean, Prince Andrew-- that story's a mess. Even what's happened with Harry and Meghan-- it's a perfect Netflix six-parter.

And so you can't help but have all these things happening within the royal family that people are genuinely going to be interested in, that is playing out in a dysfunctional fashion.

ROBERT JOBSON: But it happens in Parliament as well. It happens with [INAUDIBLE] too.

AFUA HAGAN: And that appeals to that kind of showbiz side.

OMID SCOBIE: I think the difference between MPs and the royal family, though, is that without the press and that global interest in their private lives, the sparkly outfits, what would the Royals be?

CATHERINE MAYER: But the other difference is that the Royals are born into their predicament. So where I've always felt we do need to be much more human towards them, as members of the press, perhaps, than people who seek public office, is that they are literally born into this strange world. They don't know how to navigate this world very well. They tend to get really bad advice.

And the reason I was emphasizing their entitlement to a private life to a point-- absolutely-- scrutiny of private lives is entirely justified when, as with Meghan and Harry, as with Andrew, when it becomes a genuine public-interest matter. But nevertheless, there are still lines that you shouldn't cross. And it should not stop the institution being treated seriously as an institution. It's not showbiz reporting in that sense. That's all I meant.

ROBERT JOBSON: Yeah, absolutely right.