In a recent issue of The Spectator Freddy Gray warned that some royal press officers now resemble celebrity publicists, spoon-feeding whole narratives to lapdog hacks, ultimately to the detriment of the monarchy.
Gray traced the poisonous origins of the current glossy operation. In the late Nineties senior St James’s Palace courtiers fell for political-style PR (aka spin) as a clever way to transform Prince Charles’s then-mistress into a future queen. Some very unsavoury tactics followed. In one example (not cited by Gray, but proving his thesis) in a bid to discredit William’s newly dead mother, one top adviser lent his personal support to a royal biographer to air a quack ‘diagnosis’ that Diana had been mentally ill. The intention was clearly to imply that Camilla might not be everybody’s cup of tea but at least she wasn’t a fruitcake.
Pretty shameful from the office of our future head of state, you might think, and I would agree with you. We might guess that Diana’s children didn’t much like it either. That biographer was of course Penny Junor and the resultant book Charles: Victim or Villain? (1998) is a reminder of the depths some royal spin doctors were prepared to plumb.
The author of Prince William: Born to be King is a very different Penny. With the zeal of a penitent, she roundly condemns those who could stoop so low. Forsaking ‘the mire of cunning spin and favouritism’, she embraces the enlightened doctrine Prince William has laid down for his handlers: ‘Please, please always, always tell the truth.’ Hallelujah!
This being a more overt Palace/Penny co-operation, don’t expect shocking insights or disclosures. Her recycled stories of Charles and Diana’s titanically misconceived televised confessions almost inspire a twitch of nostalgia. Back then there was at least the chance of someone going spectacularly off-message.
Not any more. This book is safe to display in the gift shops of the new homogenised Windsor brand. Penny’s bright, crisp style suits the theme of monarchy’s golden future very well. She leads us at a brisk canter — there’s lots of horsey stuff — through all the familiar landscapes of William’s life so far.
St Andrews, Chile, the Cotswolds, Kenya, Kate and the rest — a colourful scrapbook enlivened by regular appearances from Harry, the always entertaining other half of a formidable duo. We’re treated to lots of brotherly banter to please those who think royal people are just like us, and a good leavening of charity work, public duty and solemn introspection to remind us that they’re not.
Sometimes Penny reveals an under-employed talent for more subversive humour, such as when a former private secretary to Prince Charles muses on the connection between Jonathan Dimbleby and Josef Goebbels (apparently they both have ways of making you talk).
A few whiffs of the old mire sneak in: partisan testimony from former staff gives a hint of the snake-pit atmosphere in which William and Harry grew up. The picture Penny paints of the new age of truth is rosy by comparison, and believing it will come even easier once someone fixes a few obvious factual errors (e.g. William, as King, will be ‘Colonel-in-Chief of the Armed Forces’).
By the last page one overriding impression remains, as it should: after the bitterness of his early years it is all the more to the Duke of Cambridge’s credit that he and the Duchess are establishing themselves as the decent and dependable future of the monarchy. What’s more, they’ll still be doing their royal duty long after the latest crop of palace news managers have collected their PR Industry Awards and gone off to the private sector, taking their royal address books with them.