It was the story of the century – the King abdicating to marry a divorcée – yet it had been kept out of British newspapers by the palace.
Author Juliet Nicolson explains how the crown had to learn to woo the press
Since last year’s Royal Wedding, the Duchess of Cambridge has become one of the country’s most popular cover stars. A princess who resembles a supermodel ensures the happiness not only of the British press but the public too, who are guaranteed the prospect of pages of wonderful pictures during the upcoming Diamond Jubilee – pictures not only of Kate and the Queen herself but also of a new, particularly photogenic and relaxed Royal generation.
Yet just 75 years ago such lavish coverage of the Royal Family would have been unthinkable. Press freedom was controlled and even censored by crowned heads themselves. When the current Queen was ten years old, the face of the woman who wished to marry her uncle the King was almost unknown to the British public. Just one week before the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson’s picture erupted on to front pages. Until that moment an almost total press blackout on her existence had been guaranteed in Britain.
The new Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, soon revealed an instinctive gift for working with the press in order to allay the sense of betrayal felt by a post-abdication public. She realised that a succession of carefully placed images, lifting the veil on some of the mysteries of the Royal Family’s daily life, would help to re-establish the nation’s confidence and affection in the monarchy as a whole. So she set out, with the cooperation of the press, to present to the public a united family, untainted by divorce, a family who would never dream of abandoning each other, nor, just as importantly, their country.
Not only had the Queen managed to reassure a jittery public that the monarchy was a reliable symbol of unshakeable continuity in the face of adversity, but she had given the editors pictures that would guarantee soaring newspaper sales.
The postwar years ushered in a new challenge – television...In an attempt to use the medium to the monarchy’s advantage, in 1968 the Queen agreed to the filming of the BBC Royal Family documentary. But the cosy scenes of life at the Windsors’ dinner table and family picnics were interpreted by the public as embarrassing rather than endearing. Glaring sunlight had been let in on royal magic, bleaching out something of its appealing mystery. Barbecued sausages became a source of derision.
Yet royalty remained news, and the fascination with Prince Charles’s young bride-to-be enveloped the popular press...The fascination grew into an addiction that proved dangerous for the monarchy, press and public alike. On a couple of occasions when the intrusion into Diana’s life seemed beyond control (shopping for Mars bars, sunbathing in a bikini when six months pregnant), the Queen personally appealed to editors on her daughter-in-law’s behalf. But this time not even a Queen could quell the fevered interest.
In the 90s the Royal Family inadvertently provided the press and public with a helter-skelter of irresistibly newsworthy stories... The final horror of Diana’s death in 1997 momentarily shook the country’s loyalty to the monarchy... This time press photographers were accused of being directly responsible for the tragedy. The relationship between the press and the monarchy had reached an all-time low.
Gradually the press and public sympathy turned back towards the Queen, and during 1997's Golden Jubilee summer newspapers and broadcasters were united on one story: that a great number of the British public recognised, applauded and welcomed the service this now elderly woman had given her country.
In this past year...the public image of the monarchy has been revitalised by the glamour and charm of [William and Harry] and, of course, Kate. Over the past 15 years the press and Royal Family have learnt that there are mutual boundaries to respect, and that cooperation can only work to mutual advantage... And we the public – and the press – appreciate the Royal Family all the more for it.