interviewandrew morton
Morton is a royal reporter who has written several books on the Royal Family, including Diana:  Her True Story, on which Princess Diana secretly collaborated.

q:  When the Princess of Wales married into the Royal Family what was your perspective on her in those very early days, in the early eighties?

morton:  At the time that Diana was in her pomp in the early 1980's the focus was very much on her fashions, on her lifestyle. Absolutely everything, every little detail, every little nuance was front page news. If she went out for a bag of sweets that made front page news. And the pressure on her as an individual was absolutely intense and obviously with hindsight now you can see the confusion in her mind was very intense.

q:  Iin the 1980's when there was this incredible appetite for any little tit-bit of information how seriously would you check out some sort of trivial sort of nuance of her lifestyle with Buckingham Palace? I mean how seriously were these stories checked out by papers like the Star? Accuracy in other words.

a:  Well people used to mock royal reporters as not being particularly accurate in their work but, when broad sheet newspaper journalists used to come with us on royal tours, they used to be impressed by the extent to which we would go to verify a story because remember an industrial reporter might get a scoop and get it wrong but it would be on page 5 and nobody will ever remember it. You get a story about say Princess Anne being pregnant and you get that wrong then it is all over the front page and you've got egg all over your, all over your face.

So the competition meant that there was an awful, also a competition to get things right. Obviously you got things wrong because journalists do because you're working in a very difficult area but really you were trying to get things right all the time.

q:  How accessible did the Palace Household make the Princess of Wales in those early days for the media when they wanted to film her say on holiday for example, i.e. not on royal duties, I mean official duty?

a:  Well during the 1980's they always tried their best to stop them from being photographed on what they would call private functions and they would use the full panoply of the police, of influence on editors and proprietors to stop people from either photographing them or filming them and certainly you didn't used to get anybody filming them. You used to get the occasional photographer would go to Balmoral with a long lens and try and take pictures of say Prince Charles on the riverbank. But again these pictures, this what is now called intrusion, was still very laudatory. It was showing them as human beings off duty, relaxing. It was nothing, not particularly critical of either them or of the institution that they represented.

q:  Why was that do you think?

a:  Because it was in everyone's interests - the newspaper editors, Buckingham Palace - to maintain and to continue the fairy tale. I remember when I was on a tour of Italy and Prince William and Prince Harry were due to fly out to join Princess Diana and Prince Charles for a short holiday. They were flying out on a flight and I just filed the story saying how much it cost the British tax-payer to actually fly out William and Harry to Italy. And the news editor said I must be barmy. Why am I filing that kind of nonsense? So the whole thrust of any kind of reportage of the Royal Family, certainly in the tabloids, it may have been intrusive in terms of the way you define it, but it was certainly very laudatory and it really maintained and expanded the fairy tale.

q:  What do you call the fairy tale? Is that the royal romance or the image of the Royal Family as this lovely upper class family?

a:  It is the image of the Royal Family as a dutiful, sober, honorable family who were doing their best to sell Britain abroad, to represent Britain at home, and also it was also this sense that with the arrival of Diana she'd moved the royal, the House of Windsor from being a rather dull and dowdy domestic family onto the international stage, and so the Royal Family, the House of Windsor, was the one and only international running news story during the 1980's and certainly during the 1990s.

q:  Can you remember any other examples of a story that would not, your kind of story that would not have got into the Daily Star in those days?

a:  Well any story about money, any story which was even vaguely critical of the Royal Family would not make muster. Stories about Diana's fashions, about possible rows between Charles and Diana, these were meat and drink, but any kind of serious analysis, any kind of jousting with what was really going on inside the Royal Family or inside the House of Windsor was anathema.

q:  So when James Whittaker wrote a story saying that the Princess of Wales had an eating disorder, he was derided and traduced and criticized on the radio and so on and so forth which he has described. What was your attitude in your office towards Whittaker's story at that time? I mean how did you as, as another journalist react to that story?

a:  Well you had to try and find out whether the story of, of her illness was true or false but bearing in mind that the Mirror and the Sun had gone with the story in editorial terms you took account of the point of view that these people were hounding her and driving her into that kind of illness, which we now know to be accurate, although James was writing about it that she had anorexia nervosa, which her elder sister suffered from, whereas Diana had bulimia which is a very different kind of eating disorder.

q:  But he was getting near the truth?

a:  Oh yes absolutely. James got it from somebody inside the Spencer family.

q:  Right. Now generally the coverage in your view was pretty adulatory and positive for them. What do you think that was doing to their own perception of themselves if you like?

a:  Well let me just wind it back a little bit. At the time you all tended to know who, what sources were accurate and what sources weren't and what newspaper journalist had the good stories and the only person writing during the early 1980's about what was really going on was a lady called Fiona McDonald Hull, who was the Court Correspondent for the News of the World. And she had an excellent contact - and I know who it was - inside Kensington Palace.

And she was writing material which was totally counter to what the general mood was. She was writing stuff about Diana coming back from an engagement and sobbing and falling down in tears and throwing things and the whole atmosphere at Kensington Palace had been really desperate. I mean it used to be a standing joke that everytime Fiona ever wrote a story she used the word 'desperate' in her copy. But subsequently, obviously Fiona's insights and information was far more accurate than the laudatory coverage that many other journalists were giving the Royal Family. So, all right, that's...

a:  But Fiona, because she worked for the News of the World, her copy, her material, her in, insights were derided and just seen as exaggeration.

q:  What was your own first inkling that things were not as good as they ought to be in the fairy tale?

a:  I started writing books about the Royal Family in the early 1980's and, when you start writing books, you get to know people better and you build up contacts. And I made several very good contacts who were telling me information which was very much counter to what the general mythology of the Royal Family was and these kind of as it were straws in the wind started to build up over the years and they came as individual stories about for example Prince Charles and Princess Diana not getting on too well. That the Duke and Duchess of York were not really seeing eye to eye, that life inside the goldfish bowl that you call Buckingham Palace or Kensington Palace was not as the world saw it.

But these things, because you were talking to contacts who would never go on the record, who would never be named, who would never stand up in Court if the Royal Family took you to Court for libel or any other civil action, then you couldn't actually pursue those story, stories as vigorously as you would like to do.

q:  Did you hint at them in your books?

a:  Yes from time to time. I remember on one occasion this contact saying to me how Diana had been in tears very shortly before the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York. She'd been in tears because Prince Charles had upbraided her about her relationship with another man. Now we didn't know who that other man was and it all seemed a bit far-fetched to me. It was a downstairs story and you very quickly learned that at Buckingham Palace and at Kensington Palace you can have a cold in the morning but by five o'clock you're dying of aids. So rumor and exaggeration walk hand-in-hand with any stories about the Royal Family both inside and outside Buckingham Palace.

q:  But when you did what happened if you tried to put some kind of slightly negative implications about what was going on in anything that came in print? I mean could you not get them into your newspapers or books?

a:  Oh yes from time to time you would, you'd do that but obviously the laws of libel in Britain are quite fierce so you have to be very careful and, if you're dealing with somebody who's telling you something off the record, they're not prepared to go to Court about it, then you've got to be very circumspect, as simple as that.

The problem with writing royal stories is so much is told to you off the record because either people above stairs are afraid of losing their friendship with the Royal Family, people below stairs are afraid of losing their jobs. So, as you build up contacts you get more and more juicy fascinating information about what the Royal Family are really doing. But at the same time it's tantalizing close but you can't print it because the laws of libel in Britain are very fierce and these people would never go to Court on your behalf. They would never stand sign an affidavit. So you're basically left to hang in the wind if you write something and then the Palace deny it.

q:  When a story expressing, getting anywhere near the truth about the Royal marriage did get into the papers and the newspaper checked it up with the Palace Press Office can you describe what their reaction would generally be to stories about how they weren't getting on?

a:  Well I remember when the first stories about Charles and Di not getting on appeared in early 1980s, 1982, '83, and Michael Shea, who was then the Press Secretary to the Queen, he gave the Star a briefing and he said that they had quotes "a rumbustious marriage but that it was a good thing" and he never gave any sign at all that the Royal marriage was in any way in any kind of problem. And remember this was at a time when Diana had tried to commit suicide by throwing herself downstairs, where she'd cut herself, where she was suffering from bulimia, where the Royal Family were actually tearing their hair out as to what to do about this woman who seemed to be to them out of control and yet on the surface the Royal Family was like a swan, gliding beautifully along the surface of British society.

q:  But I mean in fairness to Michael Shea, he may not have actually known about all these things that were going on?

a:  He may not have known, but that's a question you might have to ask him -- but even if he had known, he probably he wouldn't have said it.

Because at the time the Palace's view was that they will talk about public events but never private things unless that individual unless a member of the Royal Family gave them the go-ahead.

The Royal Family's Press Office were known as the Abominable No Man because they always used to say 'no comment' because their policy was very much that the private lives of the Royal Family were private, and yet there was throughout the 1980s, and before that really, this intermingling between what is public and what is private, and so they were always changing the goal posts, they were always changing the agenda always in their favor. And they defined the agenda. They defined what was private and what was public and they would move it whenever they wished.

q:  Makes me think of that television film that they made which was actually called "In Public In Private." I mean what did you make of that as a journalist, always being told you mustn't poke into their private lives and then they make a film which purports to be partly about their private life?

a:  Well this was the irony really of the 1980s that the Royal Family as it were hitched their wagon to television and everything that they did they went, they did through television and they left the tabloids and the broadsheets alone, apart from the occasional lunch with editors. But so as a result of that they, they really swapped the deeper reverence of mystique, the mystique of Monarchy, for what you might call the shallow applause of the studio audience. So what you were seeing was what I would call the Woganisation of the Windsors. They were becoming more and more showbiz personalities. They were doing it for charity. They were doing it to explain themselves, but the boundaries between what was private and what was public were very, very gray indeed.

q:  Returning now to the problems in the Royal marriage. It seems from interviews that we've done with other people that getting perhaps late into the eighties, that the Princess of Wales herself started to talk to editors - and particularly perhaps David English - and other journalists who were following her around in an oblique way about the problems within her marriage. Did you have any direct experience of this yourself? I mean you traveled around with her when she was on tours in groups and she would talk on airplanes and at receptions ,and so on, to journalists and she'd given obviously off the record conversations but they were used by the people that she spoke to?

a:  There was a period when they were Charles and Diana were touring around the world where you were meeting them at these cocktail parties on a fairly regular basis and the conversations were usually light, bright and trite. But also it was noticeable that Diana particularly would pick on a subject about usually, invariably it was about Prince William and how he was progressing and drop that into the conversation knowing full well that would be used as a nice juicy, human interest story that was favorable to William, to her and there was never any inkling at that time that there was anything wrong with the marriage. Certainly when she was talking at these receptions it was all lively joshing and very friendly.

q:  When you went to watch "It's a Royal Knockout" at Alton Towers. Can you describe what thoughts were going through your head when you watched the event first of all?

a:  I watched the event with James Whittaker from the Daily Mirror and there was one moment on this bitterly cold June day where we saw the Duchess of York running round this muddy field shouting her head off looking like a sixth form schoolgirl and we just simultaneously turned to each other and said Well this spells the end of her and the House of Windsor because it was a joke. They were just making themselves into figures of fun and this is where television during the 1980's did the Royal Family no favors at all.

The Royal Knockout was just really symptomatic of what was going on in the relationship between the House of Windsor and television was giving them carte blanche to talk about whatever they wanted - their stamp collections, their helicopters, their horse riding their interest in architecture, their interest in the environment. For a time during the 1980s the Royal Family were not just the most influential family in Britain but probably in Europe and Prince Charles specifically was very much like a defacto Cabinet member and what he said actually had impact on public policy. And they were using television to expand on their private interests and also their public concerns and to that extent people in the newspaper world felt very angry at the way that they were changing the whole agenda - one agenda for television, another agenda for the broadsheets and for the tabloids.

q:  Why shouldn't people from an important national institution put their point across on television?

a:  There's no reason at all why they shouldn't put their point across on television about architecture or about what, whatever they want but like politicians. If they're going to behave like politicians, they must be looked at like politicians and just as we like to see what a politician is really like behind the closed doors of his constituency we also want to know, especially when they're lecturing us on how we should live our lives we also want to know what they're really like behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace.

q:  After It's A Royal Knockout" event -- when you went to the press conference afterwards can you describe what happened?

a:  Well it had been a long day for everybody. Everybody was tired. Everybody was cold and I remember Prince Edward asked someone in the general throng --'What did you think of it?; and we all kind of mumbled 'Well, nothing very much' and then, he stormed out as one says like a ballerina with a ladder in his tights. He was arrogant, unpleasant and he was presumably, and probably overwrought. But for us it was a story. We had a deadline to meet but it did represent, it did symbolize I think the apogee of the Royal Family during the 1980.

q:  But he was Prince Edward. He was a member of Britain's Royal Family and you were impolite to him?

a:  No. Nobody was impolite to him. People, he just asked us a question and he got a fairly desultory answer and at that time he, he'd had a long day and he was overwrought but if he wants to do, if he wants to hold a press conference you hold a press conference. He wasn't professional. He was very amateurish. He was very high-handed and he acted in the way, in the rather teutonic way that the Windsors tend to do when they're under pressure.

Members of the Royal Family tend to, and Prince Edward particularly, tend to shade in and out of being ordinary people and royal people. They will put on their airs and graces as being royal and then they want to be everyman, to be ordinary, and Prince Edward is a classic example of this. He's a TV producer, a theatrical impresario, and he wants to be treated as Mr. Windsor but when the going gets rough he wants to be treated like a member of the Royal Family and this was the problem that he faced when he was in the Royal Marines, that one minute he wanted to be royal, the next minute he wanted to be an ordinary chap, and I'm afraid they can't do it.

q:  Was that also the problem with the Royal Knockout?

a:  There were a number of factors behind the Royal Knockout. One was the fact that one newspaper had total exclusivity of the pictures, so there's a degree of competition to get some kind of photographic image of what was really going on. Secondly there was this whole scene of the Royal Family behaving in a way that was totally alien to the way that you normally saw them and in the kind of the tension of the time when you were actually looking at Princess Anne you can actually see - and maybe I'm extrapolating from this - in her body language she was saying to the world I want to be somewhere else. I want to be a million miles away from this. And when, I remember Stuart Hall trying to put his arm round her and she shrank back in horror. And she was obviously aware that this whole event was doom laden. The Duke and Duchess of York were having a great old time. They were throwing sugar at each other, fruit at each other, behaving in precisely the same way that the Royal Family do behave behind closed door, this upper class, bread roll throwing family, but they were doing it in public and so we were getting a real vivid glimpse of how they really behave when the gates are open.

q:  So, can you sum up sort of your view of the inflated prestige, if you like, of the Royal Family during the eighties.

a:  The high point of the Queen's reign is possibly the Silver Jubilee of 1977. That's when they were at their height as a domestic royal family. The 1980s turned them into an international family thanks to the arrival of Diana and this bull's generation of young Royals - Prince Andrew, The Duchess of York and so on. And what happened was that they were rather like a stock, rather like IBM. Their stock went up and up and up and when the balloon burst their stock went plummeting to the ground. And I think that it's the very fact that they were seen in this international way that they lost the roots of where they were and they were judged and they were given access to television. They were treated in a very uncritical way by the mass media. They were lauded. They were lionized and they had, in both legal terms and constitutional terms they enjoyed the greatest privileges and the fewest responsibilities at any time in the House of Windsor. And it's fascinating as a historian really that at the time of many royal houses, at the time of their greatest seeming triumph is the moment when they come crashing to the ground.

q:  But how important was our own, our own professions, if you want to call them that, of television and the press in building them up and giving them an perhaps an unrealistic sense of their own popularity?

a:  I would argue that television and particularly the BBC were instrumental in puffing up the Royal Family to a level where they were inflated out of all, all proportion to their relevance on the national scene. The very fact that Prince Charles was acting almost like an unofficial member of the opposition and at the time almost like the opposition leader, was a case in point. The very fact that the broad sheet newspapers, which should really look at public importance stories, never once investigated or analyzed the House of Windsor or the implications for the future of Britain of our constitutional monarchy was another example. The fact that the tabloids by and large wanted to maintain and expand the fairy tale all helped to keep Buckingham Palace with a sense that nothing could ever go wrong that they were riding on the crest of a wave and that everything was fine and yet inside the House of Windsor the whole thing was collapsing around their ears.

q:  Now what did the Princess of Wales media appeal if you like, the fact that she was the Number One cover girl in the world do for her status, I mean status and a kind of hierarchy within the House of Windsor? Forget about her personal problems for a minute.

a:  Diana's status inside the House of Windsor was that of the Princess of Wales and she technically was Number Two to Prince Charles and that's where some of the problems lay because she was, she really should have been in the shadows and ironically she was the super star. Prince Charles was the man who was used to playing as it were leading the bill in the House of Windsor. Diana should have been playing second fiddle... In terms of the 1980s Diana's position was very ambivalent. Inside the House of Windsor she was just she was a member of the Royal Family. She was not the super star. She was not seen as the super star. Prince Charles was the one upon which everyone directed their attention and yet to the mass media, to the public, Diana was the super star and for her there was this incredible dichotomy going on all the time. She was lauded and lionized outside Kensington Palace. She was treated as a second-class, third-class citizen inside Buckingham Palace and that's where the problem lay, not just for her but for the Duchess of York.

q:  Well what about for other members of the Royal Family like the people running the main Press Office and so on and so forth? I mean what did that do for them because they were supposed to be representing all of them?

a:  I felt very sorry for people in the Press Office because they knew the hierarchy inside Buckingham Palace. They knew that Diana's position was not that of the super star. She was just a member of the Royal Family and yet they were having to deal with endless requests for interviews and so on and so forth and that, and so that put them in an invidious position. But the stark reality is that the public want to know about Royal women and not about Royal men. Whereas inside the Royal Family, apart from the Queen, it's the Royal men who rule the roost.

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