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Alastair Campbell: Harry, Diana and me

Tuesday 9 March 2021

The road that brought the prince and now Meghan to give their interview inspires compassion and regret. But the monarchy will survive. There is more nuance in this saga than the polarised debates of our age will allow


As most of the world, or at least the world’s media, was gorging on the Meghan-Harry-Oprah show, I was under the cosh – my publisher telling me that yesterday was “last, last chance” to make any final edits to Volume 8 of the diaries, which goes to the printer’s today. To be fair to my obsessive personality, I found several typos, an inaccurate square bracket and a few index malfunctions. So it was (ahem) worth it, and frankly worth it, too, to be spared much of the round-the-clock, round-the-world coverage of “that interview”, which, as I peeked occasionally at social media, seemed to confirm the rage, polarisation and “one big story at a time” pattern of our age.

Those who didn’t like Meghan found plenty of reasons to hate on her more; men who had long thought she had targeted Harry, and got him under the thumb, told their followers how right they had been all along; young women and people of colour who saw her as a role model were confirmed in their views that she was fresh and different and had been cruelly spat out by the Establishment. 

Those who admire the Queen expressed sympathy and, if they were in a polarising mood, more hatred for Meghan and Harry for adding to her woes while Prince Philip was lying in a hospital bed. Oprah fans said it was the greatest interview she had ever done; Oprah detractors were appalled that the questions were so softball.

Princess Diana, on the day her divorce from the Prince of Wales was announced, with a police officer holding back a photographer, St. James’, London, 12 July 1996

It all took me back to my first volume of diaries and encounters a quarter of a century ago with Princess Diana. To Tony Blair’s considerable annoyance, she opened her first conversation with him with the words: “What’s Alastair Campbell really like?” God, he didn’t like that.

When we met, shortly afterwards, she asked me why I had written harsh things about her when I was a newspaper columnist. I was genuinely taken aback. One, that she had read my columns; two, that it bothered her what I said; three, that she remembered. 

She could even quote lines I had said about her in a What the Papers Say episode I had presented some years earlier. Seeing her there, “drop dead gorgeous in a way the millions of photos don’t quite get it,” as I wrote at the time, was one of those moments you remember in life – and not just because I was going all Mills and Boon and “drowning in her beauty.” 

As she spoke of the hurt she often felt at the hands of the media, I realised that there are some people (and she was one of them) whose fame becomes so large that we – we the media, that is, and to some extent we the public – cease to see them as human beings, and view them only as objects on which to project our own feelings and prejudices.

There were several meetings when we were in opposition, in the course of which a few things became clear: a real love for her sons; a desire for them not to be trapped in the – as she saw it – stuffy and unemotional environment of “the Firm”; an obsession with pictures as the key to public image; a love-hate relationship with the media, which she saw as often cruel and intrusive, but which she also courted, and knew had helped make her the global icon she had become; a visceral loathing of some of the palace courtiers; a desire that William should be King for a long time; a belief that the royals had to change more than they realised; a fondness for Prince Charles but a worry about his future: “I’m fascinated by what Charles will do. I’m with the public on that one. I want to know if he will marry.”

Princess Diana and her sons Prince William and Prince Harry attend a VE Remembrance Service in Hyde Park on 7 May 1995

By the end of New Labour’s first year in power, she was dead, and, to quote the Herald Tribune headline the day after her death in 1997, the world was mourning the “People’s Princess”. As with the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah, the story went round the world, and everyone was expected to have a view, take sides. 

How much uglier might the reaction have been 24 years ago had we already been in the social media era, as the mountains of flowers grew, the flag stayed at half mast, and the royals remained at Balmoral?

When Meghan talked about having suicidal feelings, the haters said she was making it up, while the fans said it was confirmation that she had been horribly treated. Given that none of them knew anything beyond the words coming from her mouth, it was all getting really nasty. Time to get back to my proof read.

Then, during my next peek at Twitter and Instagram, I saw this: “This is all happening because Alastair Campbell made Harry walk behind his mother’s coffin.” Wow! My fault!

There were also people asking why, as a mental health campaigner, I was saying nothing about what Meghan had said about her own mental health struggles. 

This is part of what is wrong with our times. Everyone is expected to have and play a role. I was staying out for reasons I have given above – towel round head, work to do. But, in what I call the “Supposed Society,” we are all “supposed” to react and behave in a certain way. You are the mental health guy, so why aren’t you sticking up for Meghan for talking about being suicidal? Because I had said nothing, my credentials as a mental health campaigner were worthless. Or so I was told.

I didn’t respond to the coffin tweet, but shall do so now. First, by saying that the angry tweeter had half a point. Namely, that there is something very deep in Harry – his feelings about his life, about the loss of his mother, the subsequent mental health struggles that he and his brother faced, their hatred of much of our media – that goes back to that week in 1997; not merely to the horrific loss itself, and the horrific circumstances of that loss, but to the pressures he and William were under to play their role, do their duty, be strong, show a stiff upper lip. Perhaps they knew, also, that one of the reasons their elders were so keen to have them there was the worry that the crowds might rebel if Prince Charles walked alone, or with Prince Philip, and boo him, damaging both the solemnity of the event and the reputation of the royals. Charles Spencer was persuaded to join them to offer moral support to the boys.

Charles Spencer, Prince William, Prince Harry And Prince Charles watching the coffin of Diana, Princess Of Wales departing Westminster Abbey in London, 6 September 1997

Though I was involved in those planning meetings about the funeral, I think it is a bit harsh – well, very harsh – to suggest that I “made Harry walk behind his mother’s coffin.” That was a decision very much taken at Balmoral – where the Queen and Prince Charles had initially decided it was better for the boys to be away from all that was happening in and around the palaces in London.

I do find it hard to recall that week, however, and in particular that walk behind the coffin, and not feel at least some understanding and sympathy for Harry and compassion for him over where he has ended up. When he spoke in the interview of feeling let down by his father, and Meghan complained of not being given proper support, it was hard not to hear direct echoes of Diana, who also felt let down and unsupported by Charles and by the monarchical institution. Hard, too, not to reflect that the response to her death, if you remember, was “supposed” to usher in a new, gentler era in which we had greater respect and understanding for the feelings of others. Our media culture, exacerbated by social media, didn’t stay the course long with that one, did it?

It is difficult, also, not to sense that much of the media loathing of Harry and Meghan stems from their outspoken views on parts of the press, and their breach of what Harry called the “invisible contract” by taking the newspapers on and winning in court. 

William, as I learned when interviewing him for GQ magazine a while back, has many of the same feelings as Harry about the past, and about the media, but has perhaps found different ways of dealing with them. He will not enjoy being estranged from his brother, however. He will not enjoy the baring in public of Harry’s rift with his father. He will not enjoy the sense of the institution in crisis at a time when the Queen is ageing and Prince Philip is so ill.

They will get through it, though. I don’t quite buy the idea that this is the biggest crisis they have ever faced. It is one of the biggest media frenzies, for sure, but that is not the same thing. They have a way of adapting that is not to be underestimated. 

I was talking recently to Peter Morgan, creator and writer of The Crown, who said that, as part of his research, he had watched TV debates in the 1990s about the future of the monarchy, and that they were often brutal in their condemnations of the royal family. Those voices barely get a hearing in our mainstream media today.

In the 1970s, Labour MP Willie Hamilton made his name as an outspoken critic of the royals in parliament (notoriously in the 1975 book, My Queen and I). Today, I can think of no parliamentarian who says a word against the Queen, or even the monarchy as an institution. It has been a remarkable story of survival, given that so many other established institutions have seen their standing decline in the modern world.

On the question of political bias, the Queen has a pretty faultless story to tell. But there is a general tilt to the right inside the palace. This is perhaps unsurprising given the officials’ backgrounds, their schools, their connections. But (as I write in the new volume) I do think they were unwise, when compiling the guest list for the wedding of William and Kate in 2011, to invite several Tory politicians, but not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. 

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge walk down the aisle at the close of their wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey, 29 April 2011

The “line” was that John Major was invited because he was a “member of the Order of the Garter,” and had also advised the boys personally in the past. It did not stack up though, given other Tory politicians were there.

Even in that situation, however, Labour politicians were reluctant to say anything critical. David Cameron and George Osborne were livid – as I record via former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood – thinking that people would imagine this was a government snub to Labour rather than a royal one. But they, too, kept their fury to themselves. For all the noise around the royals, there is very little by way of attack upon the Queen, or the idea of the institution itself – and that is a definite change from days gone by. In its own way, an incredible success story.

The most incendiary revelation from the interview was Meghan saying that someone in the royal family had asked how dark their son Archie’s skin would be. We don’t know who said it, and we don’t know the circumstances, and it is not hard to imagine that in an institution as white and privileged as the monarchy and its aristocratic support systems, there are racists and expressions of racism. (By the way, should Oprah not perhaps have asked Harry how his dressing up as a Nazi, or his use of the P-word to describe a Pakistani military colleague, fitted with a progressive worldview?)

My main break from the diaries and social media yesterday was an online meeting with a business contact, who is white, and married to a black woman, with a mixed race child. He had an interesting take. He said when his wife was pregnant, they talked all the time about what colour skin the baby would have.

So the unnamed royal who asked that question might well have been racist in what he or she was saying. But my colleague gave me a very good insight into how it is at least possible that they were not (at least in intent). Shades of grey, no pun intended.

There is a reference in the new book to discussions about what I could and could not keep in earlier volumes, when every word still had to be vetted by various branches of government. One related to something a senior palace courtier said on the day before Diana’s funeral, at the end of the final planning meeting, when all the organising was done. 

“The die is cast,” he said. A few eyebrows shot up. Was it a rather sick play on words? Or was it actually just a literal statement of fact… the die is cast, the decisions are all taken, the plans are made, there is no going back now. I was there, and, sick pun or statement of fact with no ill intent, I honestly don’t know. 

There are, you see, in the real world, real shades of grey. They just don’t translate very well in today’s media world.

Photographs Getty Images

Volume 8 of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit, 2010-2015, published 25 March, available for pre-order now at Biteback or at alastaircampbell.org.