interviewmax hastings
 Hastings was editor of The Daily Telegraph, 1986-1995.



q:  During the1980's you were involved in the Press Complaints Commission on intrusion by tabloid newspapers into the private lives of members of the Royal Family during the 1980's. If you remember there were a number of notable incidents. I think the most famous one was the blackest day of British journalism when the Princess of Wales was photographed in a bikini. What did you make of that behaviour at that period?

hastings:  There was no doubt that in the early and mid-eighties that many of us in broadsheet newspapers felt that we still had a responsibility to try to protect the Royal Family or if you like protect the Monarchy from the assaults of the media. And it was perfectly plain that the behaviour of some parts of the media were making it more and more difficult for the Monarchy to preserve the sort of dignity that, although dignity's not a very fashionable word, I feel is absolutely essential if the whole institution is to survive.

But as the 1980's went on, and in particular as the Wales and York marriages got into difficulties, that those of us who were trying to play that game felt more and more exposed and I think ultimately I'd have to say we were left looking pretty ridiculous. The watershed for me was the Andrew Morton book.


q:  What had happened to newspapers in that period which made intrusions into the Royal Family more acceptable, well not acceptable exactly but more common--what had happened to the structure of the industry if you like?

a:  I'm certainly one of those who think that Rupert Murdoch's personal influence was decisive in the media's attitude to the Monarchy as to very many other things. Some people believe that Murdoch is an ideological republican. I don't personally think he's particularly ideological anything. He is an extremely ruthless, brilliantly professional newspaper proprietor. I don't think he has any other agenda other than to make his own newspapers very successful.

Now the important difference between Rupert Murdoch and some of his predecessors is that some of his predecessors would prevent their newspapers from doing unpleasant things to the Royal Family. Now what's different with Murdoch I think is that he was not going to do anything very dramatic against the Royal Family but he wasn't going to lift a finger to stop his newspapers from doing anything unpleasant, and his newspapers pushed the frontiers of intrusion and of how rude you could be about the Royal Family further and further forward. And I'm convinced that this was overwhelmingly because Rupert Murdoch thought this was the way to sell newspapers, not because he gave a fig whether the British Monarchy survived or died.

Murdoch was at the forefront of the process of killing deference but also respect. There's a very nice borderline in English life about this. Most of us think that probably before the 1980's there was too much deference to institutions and to individuals in British life but in the process of killing off deference that respect, which is terribly important, not only self-respect but respect for people and for things also went out of the window and Rupert Murdoch was very much at the forefront of seeing that this happened.

q:  Rumours were circulating in it used to be called Fleet Street about the Wales's marriage for a long time before the general public were really aware of it. What was your attitude on the Daily Telegraph How did you feel you should treat them or what did you feel the Daily Telegraph readers expected of you to do with such stories?

a:  My feeling was that any responsible newspaper and certainly an archetypally middle-class, middle-brow newspaper like the Daily Telegraph not only has a responsibility to try to protect institutions and individuals who are at the centre of British life but also that's what your readers want and expect you to do. So for a long time I wouldn't allow any mention in the Telegraph of the alleged rumours about....

I felt that the Daily Telegraph readers would expect us to keep out of the paper rumours of this kind and one has to remember that the public really had no inkling of this.

And I remember saying at a dinner party up in Leicestershire when I was living up there one evening, that it was very sad to see both the Wales and York marriages in trouble and I remember one of my relations turning to me in complete disbelief and saying 'Oh come off it Max. That's a sort of ludicrous thing that all you miserable people in the newspaper business say.' And in that world where even in the mid- to-late 1980's respect for the Monarchy was so deeply ingrained. It was unthinkable the idea that there could be divorces of this kind. They just couldn't take it aboard. So I felt that the last thing our readers would thank us for was breaking the bad news in the Daily Telegraph about this and I also believed that if, as seemed to me then likely, whatever private difficulties the Wales' were having that they somehow managed to keep the public face of their marriage going, then it was up to us to help them do so.

q:  Was this ever intimated to you by people in the Palace or the sort of friends of the Prince of Wales that this would be a helpful thing for a paper like the Daily Telegraph to do? Other papers have told us that they were, that their paper was recruited.

a:  In the beginning the most that was really expected of us and which I thought was fairly reasonable to expect from us is that we should not put in our newspaper the sort of quotes, tittletattle that some other newspapers were carrying about royal marriages and so on.

Now oddly enough things did get more complex. Once there started to be leaks from the Princess of Wales's side about troubles with the marriage which were appearing in other newspapers that yes, some of the Prince of Wales's friends did start to suggest to me that we might carry in the Telegraph some of quotes 'his side of it' and I actually said to them privately I thought this was madness from every point of view that first of all the public at this stage had no inkling of, of how serious the difficulties were and secondly, even if the sort of stories it was being suggested we should run were true, that I don't think in any marriage least of all a royal marriage it was likely to do them any good for us to start a counter-assault on behalf of the Prince of Wales, so I did nothing about this.

This was the late eighties.

q:  Did you feel that perhaps they were preparing for a future separation?

a:  At that stage it seemed absolutely unthinkable that there could be a royal divorce, that the whole history not only of the Royal Family's behaviour over the centuries but also the aristocracy's is --however horrible your marriage was in private that you continued to put a public face on it. And frankly naively as it may seem now, it never occurred to me that they would actually reach a public break-up.

q:  Something that seems to have dogged the Prince of Wales perhaps throughout his entire life -- and this comes out in his biography by Jonathan Dimbleby--is that he's always had difficulty in putting the serious side of his work, of his life, if you like, across. What did you observe is his problem in terms of his own attempts to put across his message?

a:  I think a problem for all royalty but one from which the Prince of Wales suffers is that too many of the people around him don't or are unable to make him see himself as he really is, that all of us when we're children want to write our own school reports. Most of us when we grow up realise that we can't . But Princes have the opportunity not to understand that and I would say the Prince of Wales's life had been daubed by a terrible tendency towards self-pity. He is an absolute shocker at feeling sorry for himself and this undoubtedly, when his marriage started to run into difficulties, made him not very good at presenting himself.

And I remember when I was first told about the Dimbleby project right back at the beginning and asked what I thought about it privately by one or two of the Palace people, and I said 'this is absolute madness. That there's only one thing anybody's going to want to hear about and that's the marriage and the consequences will be disastrous. ' And I remember one of the Prince of Wales's closest aides saying - 'But we've got to do something.' And I said - 'But this is the fundamental huge mistake at the heart of all your thinking that this is a sort of public war which can be waged by public relations means.' And although it may seem odd coming from me as an Editor, the advice I always give whether to princes or paupers, when you've got a row on your hands say nothing, say nothing, say nothing. And it was an incredible act of foolishness to believe that by putting quotes 'their side of it' unquotes - that they would somehow help their own cause.

q:  Andrew Morton's book was serialised in the Sunday Times. What was your reaction to that?

a:  Well if I'm looking back on ten years as an Editor of the Daily Telegraph, then I suppose the moment at which I blush most is to remember the Morton book because when it came out I was inclined to believe two things which actually responsibly journalists shouldn't let themselves believe.

One is it's not true and the second is well if it is they shouldn't say so. And, although I've always in many way admired Andrew Neil as a journalist, I thought that the ruthlessness with which he pulled the pin out of the grenade and lobbed it into the heart of the Monarchy as an institution -- I found, as many of our readers found -- repugnant. And I said this fairly forcefully.

And it was one of the nastiest shocks I've ever had when one came gradually to realise first of all, that what was in the Morton book was true, and secondly that the Princess of Wales had indeed been behind it because again - and I blush at the memory of my own naivety - I simply didn't believe at the time that the Princess of Wales could have been so unbelievably stupid as to co-operate with a book of that kind.

q:  Can you describe, having been on Radio Four and the Today programme and attacking the book, at what point it dawned on you that the Princess had in fact collaborated with the book, which might not necessarily make it true but made it a different kind of beast if you like?

a:  I think it was a month or two after the book was first serialised in the Sunday Times that one began to realise that it almost certainly was true and that she had co-operated. But I suppose at that stage I just found it so difficult to come to terms with the fact that anybody - whether a princess or anyone else - could be so foolish as to engage a tabloid journalist like Morton in indiscretions on that scale because it was a self-destruct process. It was an extraordinary-- in which it did seem amazing, first of all, that she should want to talk at all but secondly, that she should engage the Murdoch press in this process. I mean it was, it was a degree of, it suggested a degree of, of wilful self-destructiveness that took months to come to terms with.

q:  Why was it a watershed for the Royal Family in their dealings with the Press?

a:  I suppose the Morton book was a watershed because finally one was asked to come to terms with the fact that a very prominent member of the Royal Family had done something incredibly foolish, incredibly indiscreet and attempted to manipulate the media for her own ends. Now when this was compounded by the Prince of Wales doing exactly the same with Jonathan Dimbleby and also engaging the Murdoch press in this operation, that at that moment in fact--I did write to the Prince of Wales's office and I said 'Hitherto I've always tried very hard to run the newspaper for which I am responsible in a way that will be helpful to the institution of the Monarchy and the Royal Family. But from hereon all bets are off.' Not that one would ever wantonly do the Monarchy or the Royal, the Royal Family any disservice but any notion that one would act against the interest of the paper or keep something out of the paper in order to help the Royal Family has to be off when you've half the Royal Family exploiting the media for their own ends and in this particular case actually being willing to flog anything they've got to flog to the Murdoch press, who in this case were our competition. So, if they're not prepared to help themselves, why on earth should any of the rest of us stick our necks out to help them?

And today as an Editor when a story about the Royals comes up we may or may not decide to use it and we try very hard to make sure that it's true before it goes in the paper, but I would never for a second stop to think before I put something in the paper --'Is this going to hurt or harm them?'-- because I think we've passed that point.

q:  You speak with great passion and in a sense of sadness, really, that it was the end of a whole period when a certain section of the press and the television as well would help an institution was ended by the actions of some members of the family.

a:  I'm a passionate monarchist. I want the Monarchy in this country to go on and as an Editor for a good long while I was very happy to do the modest amount that I could to try and help this if only by seeing that we didn't join the mud-slinging contest that was going on but as an Editor one also has a commercial responsibility. And when one found that we were obviously deadly rivals of the Murdoch press and when one found that both the Prince and Princess of Wales were willing to flog enormously valuable commercial properties to the Murdoch press without I may say them even being offered to us, then you feel well-- what's the point? Why on earth should anybody else try and be altruistic or selfless if all they're thinking about is themselves and the game they're playing for their own sakes.

q:  In terms of journalism and what your newspaper then, the Daily Telegraph, would do and not do, what was the effect of Morton on what stories actually got into the Telegraph post-1992? For example you had, at that time you had the Duchess of York and the Squidgytapes. I mean how did you deal with them at the Telegraph?

a:  The effect of Morton was a slow burn. I'm bound to say that when the book was first published most of my senior executives on the paper said 'You are quite wrong to take this attitude that you won't do anything about it in the paper. This is a real story. This is true. You've got to do it.' So I was under tremendous pressure. Again with hindsight they were right and I was wrong about this but it was a gradual process that over the months that followed yes, we slowly opened the door further and further to carry the sort of stories about the Royals that would have been unthinkable and what we found ourselves, let's say a year down the line from the Morton book, the questions being asked were the same questions as you'd ask with any other sort of journalistic story. Not is this story in the interest of the Royals and of the Monarchy but is it true? And, if it's true, you print it.

Our readers not surprisingly went through very much the same process that, that we did. Initially they were warmly appreciative and wrote to say so, the fact that we did not carry anything about the Morton book or about the Royal troubles in the paper. But gradually they adjusted to the idea that there was something in it and there were troubles at mill. Yes, when we began to carry more forthright Royal stories there were some letters from readers deploring the fact that we'd done so.

But I wrote back to them as frankly as I could and I said I regret this as much as you do but it is not we who have changed the game but some prominent members of the Royal Family. And, if they're going to do things the way they do, then it is our job if the stories are true to publish them. And if they are seeking to exploit the media then who are we to stand back and say we're not going to have anything to do with running stories about you in our newspaper?

q:  Do you remember a piece that Montgomery wrote saying that the Royal Family should jettison their strategy of forty years or more, presenting themselves as a modern family, to the nation?

a:  I'm one of those who have always believed that the Royal Family, -- if the Monarchy is going to survive--has got to be seen to be different. That I don't think it's good enough to say 'Oh well they're like us.' On the whole the public want the Royal Family to be different from us, maybe not better, better than us-- but certainly different from us and that's why the notion oh well, here are the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York just showing that they're a family and no different from all the rest of us with our divorces and our problems and our miseries and our sorrows, I don' t believe in the principle that the Monarchy profits from letting it all hang out.

That I once wrote to the Prince of Wales's Secretary and I said that I thought that one of the fundamental errors that they were making or that he was making was in believing that he would be judged for what he does. I said I believed the Prince of Wales would probably be judged for what he is, which is something subtly but importantly different, and that all the frenzied activity to try and show himself on the same terms as the rest of us as a real person who is engaged in doing all this and is a successful person and all that, I think this is all for the birds. That being a Prince is not about competing with the rest of us, which is what I think that he's very mistakenly been trying to do for some years now.

q:  You must have quite a correspondence with the Prince of Wales's office. How much do they encourage national newspaper editors to enter into a dialogue with them about the Prince's activities?

a:  In recent times - let's say over the last ten, twelve, fifteen years - there's no doubt that there has been much more traffic between the Palaces and some of the advisors to members of the Royal Family and Editors and those of the media. And on the whole I think that this is a good thing in helping us to understand what their thought processes are, although, of course, it can very quickly deteriorate as we' ve so vividly seen if an attempt is made simply to use any of us as simply missile sites for attacks on each other.

But yes, it is helpful to try to understand what they're thinking and equally if they ask us what we think well we say so. I remember I think it was Bill Deedes who delivered the wholly unwelcome advice but I think very sensible advice: the first duty of the Royal Family is to be boring, which I would very much agree with but ran against the whole thrust of the sort of advice that they were getting from everywhere else.

q:  It was Peregrine Worsthorne who claims that he said he should do nothing but just be as Prince Charles--how much do they need a good press?

a:  The media's influence on every aspect of life these days is tremendous and yes, I think it's not so much that they need a good press, is that they don't need a bad press. And that was the mistake that I'm convinced that the Wale's advisors made in believing that they had to work at getting a good press and to do positive things. I don't believe that. I think they just have to stay out of trouble and stay out of the public eye and stay out of controversy.

q:  Towards the end of 1992 the Queen came in for a bit of scrutiny. What is it about the Queen that prior to 1992 she always seemed to rise above - Whatever else was going wrong, whether it was Princess Margaret or Princess Michael of Kent or anything--

a:  It was always inevitable that if you get serious trouble in any family then everybody's inclined to look at the head of that family and see if they see any cause or reason to associate it with the head of the, head of the family, why it should be. What seems to me most remarkable is how well the Queen has come out of it all. That yes, a good many sticks and, sticks and stones have been thrown at her performance as a mother, at her alleged shortcomings as an emotional human being and all the rest of it, but in the last resort I think most of these sticks and stones have missed their mark, that the Queen is perceived as what most of the British public and most of her subjects want her to be--which is a marvellous symbol. She doesn't have any delusions about doing things, she just is there and that's what's wanted.

And considering the amount of mud that was indeed thrown at her in the early nineties for her alleged failures as a mother, I think it's remarkable the affection and regard for the dignity. All this comes back to that word dignity. That she's preserved her dignity even when those all around her are losing theirs and that is no mean achievement when a substantial chunk of the media is being its up, doing its upmost to destroy that dignity.

q:  Why wa the Sun particularly, and the Daily Mirror, able to make a link between the Royal Family's private behaviour and public funding in that year 1992?

a:  The biggest shock that the Royal Family and the Government got was over the row over the Windsor Castle fire. There's no question about it. A very senior Minister I remember saying two or three years ago to me, that he said he had no understanding of how unpopular it had become until he saw the scale of the row over the funding of the rebuilding at Windsor Castle.

And yes, I think this was a huge shock to them and it changed a lot of perceptions and ideas within the Royal Family, that frankly it brought an element of humility to the debate on their side that may have been helpful because hitherto in private I suspect that they'd been rather inclined to say 'Oh well, whatever all these horrible newspapers are saying really the public still love us.' Well the reaction to the Windsor Castle fire was a very salutory corrective and everybody from that moment on realised that they were walking on eggshells and realised that it would be wise to be extremely careful how they went forward.

...their handling of press relations has generally been pretty clumsy and pretty naive but underlying it I've always thought is the fact that really they don't draw any particular distinction between one newspaper and another. We might have liked to kid ourselves, when I was running the Telegraph--oh well we're a respectable middle-brow newspaper and of course the Sun and the pops are, are different--and it took me quite a few years before I realised that really in their eyes we're just all part of the media and it would never occur to them really to draw a distinction between the way that they approach one and the way they approach the others, that they regard us all with about equal loathing.

q:  You've pretty well covered what you thought about the Dimbleby project, that it was a disaster and you wrote an article about it. And, obviously, you felt that the whole interview would revolve round his admission of adultery. What was the reaction of the readers again to the Dimbleby project? Can you remember?

a:  I certainly don't think that we had any complaints from readers at all about the general tone we took about the Dimbleby book. Their sense was the same as ours, that grown up people don't spend all their times trying to slag each other off in public and believing that by telling their side of it that they're somehow serving their interest. Lots of us when we're children believe 'oh well, if the world knew us as we really are, they'd know what wonderful, clever, brilliant, charming people we really are.' But actually fortunately for our sense of stability and balance there are plenty of people around always to tell the rest of us well we're actually not quite that clever, wonderful, brilliant, marvellous and we realise that we have let the world judge us as, as they think we are and not as we think we are.

Well the whole problem I think still for the Prince of Wales is that he still honestly believes that if the world really knew him, really understood him, they'd know what a wonderful, super chap he is and somebody sometime might tell him life's not like that.

q:  After 1992 Lord Rees-Mogg, Sue Douglas, David English, other people said that the Princess of Wales's side and the Princess herself directly to journalists, particularly one of them on the Daily Mail, was very active in putting her side across.....And, the Prince of Wale's side did the same.....

a:  The Prince's camp were indeed pretty active in putting their side of the story, but the Princess of Wales waged a pretty effective launching all of their own. I mean she had a whole procession of us in for lunch at one time or another to allegedly ask our advice, and I remember being asked for lunch by whatever it was about the end of October 1995, and saying as I always say on these occasions--"M'am, I should just let the other side make the mistakes. Just stick with the principles, say nothing, say nothing. You still have tremendous public support but you're not going to serve your interests by saying a lot publicly.' Now of course nothing is more unflattering than finding your advice not taken. Well I've never had my advice so resoundingly not taken as realising as soon as the Panorma programme with the Princess of Wales appeared that at the very moment that we'd been having that conversation at that lunch and she'd been nodding away, they were setting up the cameras upstairs!

q:  Why does the Princess of Wales still have a lot of journalists to lunch? She's supposed to be a private person now but she still has a lunch even now, lots of people lunch with her. Someone on the Daily Telegraph now?

a:  There's this belief which still hasn't died I don't think in either of the breasts of the Prince and Princess of Wales that, if they keep talking to enough people privately about their story, that sooner or later they will quotes 'win' unquotes. And however often a good many of us tell them privately or publicly they're mistaken in this that they never seem to learn and they believe that if they employ sophisticated enough public relations experts and talk to enough journalists privately and in sufficient length that somehow it is going to do them some good.

q:  What has been the effect of this degree of intimacy with the press done to the institution of the monarchy as a whole?

a:  If as a Prince or Princess you try to deal with journalists privately or publicly as if you yourself were an ordinary person, then you invite yourself to be judged by the standards of an ordinary person, which I think is on the whole not good for them and not good for the institution. I remember so well after there had been a big row when Perry Worsthorne published details of a lunch for editors which he'd attended with the Prince of Wales and Bill Deedes saying in his wonderful manner, he said --'Journalists by their nature are unsuitable confidantes for Princes.' I couldn't agree more.

q:  Finally,. I'm fascinated by the Sun--the fact their political editor has won an award for his political reporting but the Editor of the Sun tells me it was mainly for his royal scoops. What do you make of the Sun being used as the vehicle for the rehabilitation of Mrs Parker Bowles and the Prince? There are a number of stories about her charitable activities and so on. What's going on there?

a:  Well there have been rumours which I have no idea whether they are true or not that Mrs Parker Bowles and the Sun have had some traffic with each other but on what terms I simply don't know. What is true is a number of the mistakes I would have to own up to eleven or twelve years down the line, is that one used to believe that when the Sun published royal stories, as with a good many other Sun stories, that they were to put it politely, not very reliable.' But we've all grudgingly had to face the fact that the Sun's royal stories are far more often accurate than anybody else's.

There have been lots of jokes about trying to find a member of the royal staff not in some way on Rupert Murdoch's payroll but this may be said, I'm sure the Editor of the Sun would say 'This is the jealousy of Fleet Street rivals.' I don't know. All we have to face is however they get the stories, their royal stories tend to be pretty on the mark.




home .  join the discussion .  pictures .  bbc interview .  interviews .  readings
morton book controversy .  press & the royal family .  links .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


pbs online
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS