interviewsimon jenkins
Jenkins was editor of The Times, 1990-1992



q:  When you were growing up how did your, someone of your generation see the Royal Family?

jenkins:  I think we then thought that they were a very, very special institution. They were very aloof. They only appeared on special and ceremonial occasions. I remember the Queen vaguely coming to our village and visiting the school as someone sort of floating on a cloud. It was very different then. They were not on television. There was no sense in which they were a part of the ordinary national life. They were a symbol.


q:  You would be in your twenties roughly and working when they made a film about themselves-- "The Royal Family." Do you remember that film?

a:  I do. I mean I can remember being -- my twenties was a period of certain radicalism and even cynicism -- and I can remember us all thinking it was a bit of a joke. There they were suddenly appearing to be ordinary people which they weren't and, in appearing to be ordinary people, they merely emphasized how unordinary they were, and so I think to that extent it was seen as a public relations sort of stunt, which it was. I mean it was, it was accepted as being that. I think there was a curious feeling that you were being allowed to see that they were at least human beings and to that extent I think it was probably a success but I think the most important part of that period in the history of the Royal Family is it was a period when children were growing up and looking back on it always seemed to me and it still seems to me today that attitudes towards the Royal Family are very much conditioned by the age of its members.

q:  Did you feel about the Royal Family as a family or did you have a view of them as head of the nation, a focus in the time of trouble?

a:  I think there are two totally distinct things. There was the Queen. You saw the Queen with a crown on a throne. She was the Head of State and she was the Head of the Empire and the Commonwealth and she represented Englishness, Britishness, Imperialism. And to that extent she was a political symbol and that was a quite distinct phenomenon.

We then had this thing called The Family and the decision made in the sixties to bring the family to the fore - which I still believe was a mistake - was a very specific and separate act and I suppose yes, we were all expected to identify. Here was a family like ours. I mean the same age as my family it so happened, and we were supposed to see that they were ordinary children who went to ordinary schools, who went on holiday, who got in and out of cars and planes. And of course you then noticed that they were rather rich and they talked in a certain way, so there was a very firm distinction about this family. It was a very odd family, a very special family, but you were expected to identify with them and to that extent , I suppose we did.

q:  You said it was a mistake identifying them as a family like others -- to represent the national ethos in idealized form through the family and their sort of form of idealized family values if you like?

a:  Well it's very straightforward. When young people, not just today but going right back to the nineteenth, the eighteenth century, get to their late teens and early twenties things tend to go wrong and it's always been thus. Indeed you can go back to the Middle Ages and find it. So the decision to make the family the concept of family values, this rather Victorian ideal of Queen Victoria's vast family, to make them in some sense the selling pitch for the Monarchy I think was a mistake, not because it was at the time in itself a foolish thing to do. I mean these were a fairly conventional group of children compared for instance to the Dutch or the Swedes, so to that extent they thought they were doing the right thing.

It simply was a risk in the future as indeed it has turned out to be.

I mean the genetic lottery is not what it was. I think most people with children between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, possibly even going on thirty-five or even forty-five, find that you get family problems. One or two people get divorced and it's hopeless if you know that's likely to happen--as it is likely to happen --to put quite such a weight of promotion, of moral authority, really, behind this particular institution.

q:  In 1981, the time of Prince Charles' wedding -- Harry Evans wrote that Prince Charles should get married because the Royal Family have become such a center of family life. How strong was that sentiment at the time among people in the Press?

a:  I can't really remember it that well. I can remember the phenomenon of the marriage and I have to say I think it was a phenomenon that surrounds marriage per se. When people get married the ceremony of the wedding is laden with ritual of all sorts. When it's between the heir to the throne and a beautiful woman, the whole world is bound to pay attention to it. When we then do it with the bravura that we did do it with, so much greater is going to be the attention. Nothing surprising about that. The only question is how many hostages you're giving to fortune and we gave a huge hostage to fortune.

q: But I mean it's almost impossible to have seen that with hindsight, I mean to have foreseen that?

a:  Well, I can only say that in common I'm sure with a lot of other people who were not royal watchers but just, just reasonably well-informed observers sitting around at that time and saying "Oh dear", this is the kind of thing that when you oversell it you discover you've made a mistake. I do think there were a lot of people maybe with ill-will and ill-intent who at the time were saying "This is a slightly odd relationship. There's a wide disparity in ages and aptitudes and in interests. It is taking place under a ballyhoo of publicity. The pressure on a very young girl is so intense. This is heading for something of a fall" and plenty of people were saying so at the time.

q:  But only privately?

a:  No, you will find people were saying it at the time. You'll certainly see they're all saying it in their memoirs now.

q:  There was that period when the appearances on the balcony were getting larger and larger. People remember the sort of core four. And then it was the Duke of Edinburgh and their family and so on. But by that stage they were getting really quite a big extended cast which we were encouraged to think of them all somehow being an institution. Do you share that, that sense of it all being somewhat a danger to the institution?

a:  I think there was a real danger, there really was. This didn't happen before. It was only in the fifties and sixties that the decision was made that members of the Royal Family would be part and parcel of the institution of Monarchy. It was not done in the nineteenth century. It was not done by George V. It was not done by George VI. It was a very specific decision to make the family in some way the means by which the concept of Monarchy seemed relevant to the public. It was a mistake. I think it was a mistake then. I think it's a mistake now and the form that the mistake has taken has been that these are human beings. They're human beings with very little to do or very little that gives them a sense of reward to do, and as a result the chance of them going I'd say off the rails or wrong, the chances of them behaving oddly is that much greater. That risk was taken and it was a mistake.

q:  The 1980's -- looking at the reporting of the Royal Family by the popular Press during that period -- can you describe the growing sense of disquiet there?

a:  Well I mean I think the thing you have to remember is that from the moment that Diana Spencer arrived on the scene you were going to get media attention devoted to her unlike anything you'd seen in the world. No film star, no Pope, no Queen was going to get the sort of attention that she was going to get. The only question was when would she crack? That's my view. There was no way you could haul off the Press.

Now Michael Shea will tell you, as Press Officer at the Palace at the time, he pleaded, pleaded, pleaded with editors to lay off the Princess of Wales on the grounds that if it went on she would crack and I remember it well. He was right. At the time we kept saying "Hold on a minute. You've sold us this great love story. You really can't have it both ways. You invited a massive blanket, intrusive publicity into this relationship and now if it's going wrong you're telling us to lay off." Well as a human being I'd say yes but I have to say on behalf of the Press pull the other one.

So you had there at that time a real tussle between the insiders, who were genuinely worried about a relationship going wrong, and a Press who let's face it had the biggest story they'd ever got. It was the love story gone wrong and as we all know, the only thing that's a better story than a love story is a love story gone wrong. And I remember vividly when the Press was upheaved by the whole question of privacy intrusion at that period in the late eighties , when I was on the Calcott Committee we would discuss these stories and my colleagues, who were not journalists, would show these stories at the table and they'd say "How can you possibly defend that?" To which the answer was "You can't possibly defend it. You can try and explain it but you can't defend it." But do not draw conclusions from stories about the Royal Family for the rest of the Press, or for other stories about other families because this story is sui generis. This story's unlike any other story. You could actually close down the British Press and the rest of the world would provide you with all the intrusion you need. This is just too big a story for the normal rules of ethics to apply.

q:  Why could you not turn off royal reporting in this country?

a:  Well the number of reporters in the pack that at the time was following the Princess of Wales who worked on the staff of national newspapers was tiny. The real so-called reptiles - others would say professionals - were freelancers both from this country and abroad. Many of the worst in terms of intrusion came from abroad particularly the freelance photographers who could make very large sums of money. You get a thousand pounds, five thousand pounds for one good tele, one good telephoto shot. You know even a policeman isn't going to keep that sort of character away.

Now the Royal couple at that time were being hounded day and night by these people. Now unless you close down the nation you're not going to stop that sort of intrusion particularly the photographic intrusion. I have to say I just think there's not a lot you could do about it. I mean you can close down the Royal Family but you after all created them. Having created them you wield the telephoto lens and throughout the 1980's you had the rat pack being led by not on the whole the members of the court group. They were led by freelancers, by characters who simply were out to make a very fast and very big pound or buck and I don't think honestly there was a lot they could do about it.

q:  But are you saying it's sort of immutable laws of the market?

a:  I'm saying precisely that. We do operate in this country in a reasonably free market both in the media of communication and in newspapers and magazines. If people walk around they can be photographed. If they have maybe by reason of birth-- but maybe by reason of choice, and certainly by reason of public relations--put themselves very much in the public eye and in this case more in the public eye than anyone has ever done period, they really are going to have to take the rough with the smooth. I will not defend the rough. I will just say that it's going to happen and the consequences of trying to stop it would I think be deleterious to British freedom because you couldn't discriminate.

I don't think you could have introduced a law that would have protected the Prince and Princess of Wales from Press intrusion that wasn't so draconian that it would have infringed all sorts of other freedoms. That's a bigger subject which you get onto then.

q:  I know Michael Shea has suggested that , looking back on his time as Palace Press Officer, that possibly he made a mistake in exposing the Royal Family. Could he or the others around advising them have done otherwise than to have gone with the flow of accessibility and exposure?

a:  I really don't know the answer to your question. I think that the Palace throughout the 1980's were riding a tiger. I suppose someone with an advanced Ph.D. in Press Studies might find that things were done wrong and could have been done better but it was extremely difficult to know what to do when you had so much money hanging on a single photograph or a single quote and I don't think anyone who was involved in the media at the time could underestimate the size of that story.

For instance most newspapers, indeed I think all the newspapers, have ethical codes which govern the sort of material you put in the paper, the extent to which children are protected, the extent to which irrelevant aspects of family life are not included in stories and, although people may sneer, actually papers do pay some attention to them. You don't know how much attention they pay because they mean, it means things get left out of papers which we therefore don't see. None of them applied to the Royal Family because the Royal Family story was so big that even if you got something like these leaked tapes, which I think no responsible editor would have wanted to put in his newspaper, you then found they were all in the foreign press. They were leaking into offices on faxes. The photostats of the transcripts were circulating round every secretary's desk. At some point or another someone's going to print it.

Now I mean the Times and the other quality newspapers were fairly high and mighty about those tapes. Sooner or later some of it was getting into your news pages whatever you could do about it and I think there's nothing that, I honestly do think that this is a story wholly unlike any other story.

q:  Richard Stott, who's the Editor of the Daily Mirror, he expressed extremely forcefully that the Royal Family couldn't have had such marvelous publicity if they had paid for it at the time of the Royal Wedding in 1981 and that they in a way sort of thrived on the oxygen of publicity and that with no publicity they'd become irrelevant and they'd die.

a:  Well I don't agree with it. I think on the one hand it was perfectly feasible for the Monarchy to say that we are about being the Head of State. We're going to supply you with a Queen okay. Give us a Palace and a civil list and a list of engagements and we'll give you a Queen and it will be the first born. I think that's the end of it. It was a completely different sort of decision to say "Oh and by the way you get something else with this. You get a Royal Family. You get beautiful princesses. You get glamorous princes. You get wonderful stories in the newspapers day in day out and you get some spills as well, so you get a running soap opera which will wow the world." Now it's possible that the decision was made that that second element that you were given, was worth it. It actually made the first element seem relevant. It gave some substance to the concept of Monarchy, that there was this quotes family out of neighbors that was running along behind it all the time.

Well it could well be that if you feel that the concept of heredity needs that kind of support, in other words if heredity is the justification for kingship or queen ship, then you'd better look at the genes and look what's coming up afterwards because that's the way in which we keep this institution in being, which was one of the arguments for so doing, well and good. You just take a big risk.

Now I happen to think that the Royal Family have been very lucky. Throughout this century the heir to the throne has been plausible. I use the word with great care. I think the heir to the throne at the moment is still plausible. It is quite conceivable and it has happened in other countries that the heir has not been plausible. Frequently in British history, he or she has been totally implausible and there's been a war. There wouldn't be a war in this country. There just might be a republic. But at the moment it's plausible. I therefore don't think there was any need for the ballyhoo to surround the Royal Family which it has.

q:  The profile of Prince Charles in the Economist , which you wrote -- Do you think he should have been saying what he thought about the relationship between public and private finance and so on?

a:  I have to say I think the Prince of Wales can say more or less anything he likes. I think it is absolutely ridiculous the constraints placed on these people. I mean apart from anything else it just drives them mad. If he gets involved in trying to support one party against another party in the eighteenth century sense then yes, it's probably a bad thing although goodness knows even then it's not the end of the world, but to suppose that he can't have a view on conservation or on agriculture or on health or even to that matter say I like, I rather like the sound of what Dr. David Owen says, I think it's a pretty poor show for the rest of us.

q:  But some people don't agree with you at all. They think that the Prince of Wales-- Peregrine Worsthorne around the same time met him, and said he shouldn't say or be or do anything particularly. He should be boring and that he should just be... Why should he in the late twentieth century be pontificating about politics and the relationship between public and private finance and so on and so forth? And what is he for?

a:  Anybody who has the ear of the public by virtue of their position rather likes to shout in that ear. One of Prince Charles's better qualities is he does listen, he absorbs and he has opinions. He may not express them very strongly but he does on one or two things express them quite strongly and like a journalist why not do it? If someone says "Would you like to make a speech?" you'd make a speech. There's no point in making an anodyne speech. It's not as if he's going to fundamentally affect the course of politics. Governments weren't going to fall because of what Prince Charles said. If he'd come out for Mrs. Thatcher I doubt if he'd have had any of the trouble he had by mildly coming out against her.

But anyway, I think the real point is that he was merely trying to nudge public opinion in certain directions which were fairly anodyne because he believed very strongly in them. And I think actually for a lot of these groups to have someone in his position rather than a politician speaking for them was not so much comforting, it was really quite helpful, and there were areas - I mean the area I was most concerned about was architecture and conservation - in which the Prince's input was very useful and I don't think politically controversial at all.

q:  Your piece is cited as part of what Andrew Neil is convinced was a concerted but very low-key attempt to distance the Royal Family from the policies of the Thatcher Government during the late 1980's.

a:  Well I think he made an awful lot out of very little. In the first place there was no conspiracy or determined effort in the case of the interview I had with the Prince of Wales to try and sell me a line that he was the SDP Prince. That was entirely my spin put on what he was saying about a wide range of things. The same applied to the great Thatcher against the Queen story. The, you have here a very, very tough Prime Minister adopting a very strident and specific partisan position. You have a Monarch who quite rightly wants to be seen to be above the political debate and I think that the, the Palace spent a lot of time at that time not distancing itself from the Government but actually making quite sure that no one could say that it was partisan and this seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing for the Palace to have done at the time.

q:  Did Prince Charles's office dislike or like your piece with its spin?

a:  I haven't the foggiest notion. I mean at the time....What I do think they wanted communicated was the fact that at that particular time the Prince of Wales was bored. He felt he hadn't got a lot to do. He felt he had something to say. He felt quite strongly, admittedly in a rather vacuous way, he felt quite strongly about a few subjects and he wanted to sort of test the water to see if he could get them across and I think at that stage the thing that, that most concerned the Palace was that they , they kind of got some reaction from people like I suppose myself as to whether he could get away with this or not. Now I agreed with him. I thought this was not the beginning of the end of the British Constitution. I thought if the British political community couldn't take a few nudges from the Prince of Wales it was being pretty prissy. That was my view. Whether it was anyone else's view I don't know.

q:  And do you think he has got away with it or not?

a:  Yes I do. I mean I think he has managed to establish himself as a person who is completely committed to the forms of constitutional independence while at the same time actually appearing, I think, a mildly interesting figure on--I won't say the policy front--but in a number of areas of public life where he happens to feel strongly and he's identified himself with a particular point of view. And I think he's done that quite successfully and if it wasn't for the wretched family problem I think he'd be considered, you know, a shoe-in for king quite soon.

q:  Are you aware of the Prince's own frustrations with the way his whole life was covered a lot in the 1980's?

a:  I think in the 1980's he was extremely frustrated at the constraints that were constantly put on him not to be controversial and not to involve himself in the slightly more risqué fringe organizations. I think that the Palace at that time was still extremely conservative and it really did feel that someone like him should sit and wait and certainly the approach that was made to me and to others "Come on now I can't stand this. Can we have a conversation? Can we just sort of dip my toe in the water of controversy?" was not the Palace. It was his own frustration at these constraints and I have to say I think they probably continue to today.

q:  The Prince as you knew was very interested in conservation and architecture. What was the effect on him of the concentration on private and trivial matters?

a:  I think very irritated. I mean I'd be irritated if I was trying to make a serious point about alternative medicine and people went on about the state of my shoes or my wife's dress but come on now, I mean that was the game that he was playing. What I think he was trying to do and I think he did with great success was actually every now and then shift the agenda. He actually got a lot of people to turn up to listen to a very long speech by him on often rather a dull subject and he at the same time I think gathered round him a very large number of people and organizations who derived great support from what he was saying. So I think despite the intensity of the Press attention, the media attention on triviality, I think Prince Charles throughout the 1980's was quite successful in running his own agenda alongside this.

q:  What has been the effect of all these revelations on the Prince's standing? I mean , what have the media done to him as the heir to the throne?

a:  I find it very difficult to judge. I meanI do not concern myself with his private life. I am not really interested in it and it's a source of absolute obsessive fascination particularly by foreigners but I never know quite what to say about it. I mean I say a lot of marriages don't end happily and there we are. If you're talking about who should be the next King of England and is this particular man reasonably well-qualified for the job, however you care to define it-- I say I think he is. And I don't think the history of his private life is either here nor there.

q:  But I suppose people think it is here or there, because of what we were just talking about earlier on--which is to do with the ideal family. And I know that lots of kings in history had mistresses but we didn't have prying, all encompassing, incredibly high-tech media following Henry VIII-- or whoever --peeping and prying into their private lives and finding out about their relationships with people.

a:  Well let me correct you. We did. I mean you had every papal legate standing outside the bedroom of the Tudor Monarchs. You had throughout the Regency everyone totally obsessed by who the Prince...

q:  We didn't have a literate population then.

a:  Well you didn't have a democracy either. I mean you certainly had a ruling group, totally obsessed with the sexual peccadilloes of the Monarch and the heir to the throne. I mean I feel strongly about this. There ain't nothing new about this. It seems new because it's a great story--but I actually don't think it's a particularly new story nor do I actually think it's a totally significant story. I think the most important thing, and it's something that you were alluding to, is whether it affects the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. I don't think it does.

q:  What are your thoughts on the Morton book and the serialization in the Sunday Times when it finally came.

a:  Well on the assumption that a book is telling the truth, I think it's extremely difficult to say it shouldn't be published. That is the law in this country. In the case of the Morton book and particularly the preliminaries and accessories to the Morton book, it was about as intrusive and painful as it could be. At the time there was a great debate about Press freedom and Press intrusion on privacy. The Morton book and the spoilers associated with it flagrantly breached almost any code you care to draw up about Press ethics.

It was about the private life and health of somebody who, irrespective of how famous they are, are entitled to a measure of privacy and to that extent it was a gross offense against any Press ethics on intrusion. All I have to say is what I say in these situations "Oh come on now. This was the Royal Family. This was the most famous couple in the world." You can deplore it till the cows come home. It sure as hell is going to happen. The only concern I think is that it should be accurate and the Sunday Times did go to some length to ascertain that it was accurate.

q:  When you said it was a great intrusion of someone's privacy did you mean, that was your first reaction that it was a terrible intrusion of the privacy of the Princess of Wales?

a:  Yes. Both of them. I think to have your domestic squabbles, your most private domestic squabbles splashed across the newspapers is an intrusion on your privacy. If that isn't, I don't know what is.

q:  But then what happened was that it dawned on Lord McGregor , as we know now, that the Princess of Wales had actually collaborated with the author of the book.

a:  Yes. The fact that one of the parties to the squabble is a party to the revelation of the news of it clearly mitigates the intrusion. I still think the other party to the squabble has some rights of privacy as well and this continues in, in other walks of life. It still is an entitlement to privacy that you have even if your spouse or ex-spouse wants to reveal all the details of your marriage. That doesn't, that's not my point. My point really is that this story was so big that you've actually got to be grown up. You've just got to say I'm sorry, this marriage was always going to hit this kind of trouble. If it hit this kind of trouble, this marriage was always going to be in the public domain.

q:  What did you personally think when it gradually became clear that this was the Princess of Wales allowing her friends to talk to a tabloid journalist about the first family in the country.

a:  Everytime a new revelation landed on the news desk of a newspaper at that time, I can recollect a sort of faint sinking feeling that everyone was going to have to abandon their ethical values for the duration and find a way of getting this wretched thing into the paper which wasn't too tasteless. And I have to say I think the operative word was tasteless, rather than anything else. You knew that there was going to be a revelation after revelation after revelation which would be in the public domain, which would probably get there through the tabloid newspapers or maybe even the magazines or maybe the foreign Press but you've got to keep your readers reasonably informed about it, that the readers themselves would be offended if you gave them too much but would be equally offended if you gave them nothing.

So very fine editorial judgments were being made all the time and I think the only consideration you could do was really to think not `What does the rule book say I can print?' but what are the readers of this particular newspaper going to be prepared to stomach. It was a difficult time. These were not easy judgments to make.

q:  So in terms of the history of broad sheet reporting-- it had an incredibly profound effect but has it had a lasting effect in terms of coverage of this particular story in papers like the Times?

a:  I think that, that the reporting of the affairs of the Prince and Princess of Wales from the moment the Morton book came out has been open territory. I think that the fact that one of the parties to the marriage was prepared to see its secrets revealed and then the other party to the marriage was prepared, prepared to see its secrets revealed meant that I think many newspapers felt to themselves `Well I don't really see why I need to adhere to the rulebook anymore. Both of these people are breaching our code of ethics on our behalf. We may as well go ahead and treat that as open, open house.'

q:  When newspapers published phone calls, private people's private phone calls, given what had happened over that summer 1992 in the Morton book what, what did you think you could do about the tapes?

a:  Well I think we didn't publish them.

q:  I meant in terms of Press ethics?

a:  Well as far as the tapes were concerned, there were laws. The publication of those tapes breached every code of practice, every list of ethics you care to draw up and quite a few laws as well. The fact of the matter was --it was felt they couldn't enforce any of them. It was certainly the source of great comment between newspapers. I mean plenty of newspapers commented on other newspapers. I think that probably that's the only defense you've got. It's for journalists to excoriate each other when they behave in that way but they were completely tasteless. They were totally intrusive. They should never have been published.

q:  When you say `they' couldn't do anything about it do you mean the Royal Family couldn't do anything about it or the PTC couldn't.

a:  Well a criminal offense had been committed, but the police felt they weren't going to act. The Royal Family have always been very chary of preying in a, any law or any code of practice that's there to protect them. I think I have to say they're very livid about it. But the fact of the matter was that if the Royal Family are not going to protest it's quite difficult to exert discipline within the industry on its recalcitrant members.




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