The fallout from Amol Rajan’s BBC documentary has shone a light on the least edifying beat in British journalism
A truly vintage week for hypocrisy in an industry I simply cannot take seriously: the newspaper industry. My industry. As longtime observers of so-called Fleet Street will be aware, living down to expectations is a constant burden. But it is a tribute to the business that said burden is shouldered daily by any number of lavishly shameless individuals, across all titles, without exception.
This past week’s standout has been the full-spectrum warfare unleashed by the tabloids on the BBC’s Amol Rajan for having the temerity to make a documentary about Princes William and Harry – who you will, of course, barely ever read about in the tabloids. On the very, very rare occasions that sacred D-notice is broken, you will only hear about the royal family in the most deferential, scrupulously fair and quintuply sourced terms. You know the sort of thing – “EXCLUSIVE: Diana thinks Kate is perfect but doesn’t believe Meghan’s ‘the one’: confidante reveals the princess still speaks to her from beyond the grave (and even told her to vote for Brexit).” Huge thanks to the tireless standards-upholders at MailOnline. And we’ll come back to the Mail very shortly.
To recap: the BBC’s media editor, Rajan, has now been the subject of days of unfavourable press – and reported outrage from the royal family – for saying that William and Harry’s households briefed against each other. Before we go on, I should say I have never so much as met Rajan, in case anyone imagines we’re friends from some cursed London media party circuit (I do not attend cursed parties). I did very much enjoy his book on spin bowlers, though – a much better way of spending an evening than having champagne misted halitotically over you by a parade of dickheads who imagine that their work is hugely significant.
What is it about Rajan that has so enraged some sections of the press? The Mail in particular has run a number of articles and columns by the likes of Janet Street-Porter, in which he is energetically trashed. “Next year he’s presenting two documentaries on social mobility,” remarks Janet tartly, “a subject he seems to know very well.” Righto. And that’s bad now, is it? Forgive me – I’m just trying to understand the specific level it would be acceptable for a person such as Amol Rajan to reach. And why.
In the meantime, the Sun and Mail have called loudly for the smelling salts over this look at the princes’ relations with the media, citing such outrages as the documentary having annoyed members of the royal family, and Rajan’s previously expressed republican views. On both counts: so what? Everyone has views, and it’s pathetic of so-called free speech nuts to pretend that they haven’t; he certainly didn’t push them in the programme. Even accounting for their long-term interest in attacking the BBC, we have to wonder why the enemies of cancel culture are trying to cancel him for it. Given that the only human right they care about is free speech, this seems an awkward spot to be occupying.
Their other bugbear, apparently, is the BBC’s “incendiary” timing, after the recent exposé of the lies behind Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview with Diana. OK, but these are distant past events. If you want a more contemporary instance of “timing”, the Mail on Sunday only this week lost its appeal against a privacy action brought by Meghan – yet no one is suggesting they suspend all coverage of her.
The spectacle of tabloid journalists – ANY journalists – demanding the royal family get shown an entire documentary before it airs, so they can approve it, is hardcore through-the-looking-glass stuff. Do the papers show the royal households the entire proof copy front page before they run with this or that anonymous briefing? Of course they don’t. “Hello – we’ve got some chiselling medium who says Meghan’s a cow and Di would have voted Brexit – can we just run the headline past William and Harry to make sure they’re absolutely thrilled with it?”
I guess the chance to rubbish the BBC for not doing something they’d never dream of doing themselves is simply too tempting to resist – but really it’s just the most extreme hypocrisy, when they have profited handsomely for decades from the very system of covert gossip it touched on.
Anonymous briefing is the royal beat’s lifeblood, helped by the fact royal households are famously Earth’s most bitchy workplaces (not even newspaper offices or the BBC come close). The idea that the royal family could claim with any certainty that one or several of their ludicrous retinues HADN’T briefed a journalist is absurd. They never STOP briefing. The whole point of working for these people for half the money you could get elsewhere is so that you can convince yourself you’re Deep Throat because you’ve divulged a spat about a tiara. That, and the constant possibility of a knee-trembler in the silver cupboard with some likeminded house elf (listen, I’m not knocking it).
The self-delusion frequently spreads to those who cover the royals. One of the most hilarious genres is the first-person article by either the “legendary” royal correspondent or the “legendary” royal photographer, along the lines of: “What’s happened to my former cheeky-chappie friend Prince Harry?” To which the answer is: he’s not your friend, he never liked you and there was never any “mutual respect” for each other’s work. You were barely tolerated: the end. The relationship between press and royals is like the relationship between stalker and stalkee, or Britain and the US. Which is to say, only one side thinks there is one.
Think of the Swiss photocall at which a boom mic picked up Prince Charles observing the dutiful ranks of royal press. “Bloody people,” he remarked to William and Harry, before catching sight of the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell. “I can’t bear that man anyway. He’s so awful, he really is.” Decades of absolute obsequiousness from Witchell, and this is what he gets for it.
But my absolute favourite part of this story is that the BBC was widely reported to have been punished by Charles for it – having its reporters not called at press conferences, a documentary about Camilla given to ITV, and so on. Clarence House denied it, unconvincingly. But to summarise: if THEY are overheard calling you awful, YOU get punished. I can’t help feeling something rather similar is happening with the continuing saga of the Rajan documentary, in which the behaviour of the royal households and some newspapers will ultimately be found to be the fault of the BBC.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist