Thursday 25 February 2021
The use of anonymous sources in the reporting around Harry and Meghan’s departure raises troubling questions about the royal family – and the press
The reporting of Diana, Princess of Wales – and the circumstances of her death – did unparalleled damage both to the Royal Family and the reputation of the British press. For many people, it destroyed their faith in one or the other – or for many, in both.
This week, reading the papers, I couldn’t help but feel like we were back in the 1990s. Prince William, we were told, was “really sad and genuinely shocked”. The response of the Sussexes to Buckingham Palace’s decision that they must relinquish their royal duties was, it was said, considered to be “petulant and insulting”. And apparently the view inside the royal household was this: “You don’t answer the Queen back – it’s just not done.”
Except, of course, we don’t really know who said what. In all the coverage, there was not one named source – in every case, it’s an aide, a source close to or a friend of a Royal. No name, no official spokesman.
My name’s James Harding, I’m the Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I simply want to point out that the use of unnamed sources in these circumstances is, both to the royal family and to journalism, damaging.
Journalists use unnamed sources widely and for good reason. And the justification is basically this: it’s to make sure that the public knows what it needs to know – i.e. it gets information in the public interest – without endangering the source’s life, job, reputation or those around them.
Many see Megxit as tabloid fare. Much of it is toxic tittle-tattle. But the bust-up between the brothers is, no doubt, in the public interest. It has a bearing on the conduct of the royal family, on the character of the future King of England and, in fact, on the standing of the monarchy itself.
That said, it’s hard to justify the use of anonymous sources in this case. These quotes are published as comments from palace officials paid for by the British public via the Sovereign Grant to articulate the views of the royal family. Their safety is surely not at stake: if they are genuinely speaking for the Queen, for Prince Charles, William or Harry, then, surely, there is no risk to their lives, jobs, reputations and families.
And if, on the other hand, a public official is briefing ad hominem attacks on other members of the royal family without the permission of the Queen or her children and grandchildren, presumably they should be sacked. If a public official, on the other hand, is briefing those attacks with their permission, well then it raises some grim questions about the royals themselves; it suggests the royal family thinks it’s ok to use the privilege of off the record briefings to settle personal scores in public. Either way, it’s hard to justify those actions on the public payroll.
In other words, it’s in the royal family’s hands to put a stop to this. Prince Charles, who increasingly runs the royal operation, could insist on attributed, on the record briefings – or no comment at all. I understand, of course, that the royal family would be be reluctant to make a celebrity of their spokesman; the last thing they’d want is the equivalent of a White House briefing room star. The ethos of the palace is that it’s not about the people who work there – royals included – it’s about the public they serve. But that’s no excuse for letting the backbiting briefings from palace officials speaking as unnamed sources continue. Statements from the royal family should be attributed.
The press, of course, could take matters into their own hands. A journalist in the press pack or a newsroom could decide it’s not going to quote unnamed sources and friends any more. After all, the anonymity is corrosive for royal correspondents too. It makes the royal press pack liable to ridicule in journalistic circles: no one’s ever quite sure which quotes are true and what’s simply been made up. And the anonymous quotes are destructive – they destroy the trust of readers, the trust of journalists in each other, the trust of the royal family and their staff amongst each other.
This is not to say there are no circumstances when there will be the need to protect the identity of sources providing information about a member of the royal family. To give an obvious hypothetical example: if someone had information relating to Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, they would certainly seek and certainly get anonymity.
But these are precarious times for Buckingham Palace. Prince Philip is unwell in hospital. The Sussexes are set to air an interview with Oprah Winfrey next week. US prosecutors working on the Epstein case are investigating the allegations against Prince Andrew. The Scottish independence movement is gaining strength and with it the possibility of the break-up of the Union and the reopening of constitutional arrangements across the UK. As my colleague Alexi Mostrous has reported, there are strains over royal money. And the transfer of decision-making from the Queen to Prince Charles is widely seen to have exposed the absence of administrative grip across the royal household.
And for those of us reading the papers, it’s all too reminiscent of the 1990s. The royal family’s official spokespeople are speaking off the record as standard practice. For that matter, the press treats them as unnamed sources as standard practice. Courtiers conspiring; the press corps colluding. Both accepting it’s just the way the game is played. But no one wins. I wonder when either one member of the royal family – or one national news outlet – will choose to say enough is enough.