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Press: Royals and media elicit worst in each other

24 January 2020


The royal couple earlier this month

The royal couple earlier this month

I THOUGHT that the funniest thing about the Harry and Meghan story this week was the Monday Guardian splash: “Revealed: how the ‘Princess’ of Angola built $2bn fortune” (starting from humble beginning with a paper round, one assumes). The paper had clearly understood that its readers were interested in royal stories, but it might benefit from a little more market research into the sort of royal families which most interest royalists.

THE GUARDIAN’s sister paper, The Observer, published the most instructive piece on the whole imbroglio, by Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor: “Almost everything we think we know about this couple is filtered through journalists. . . In order to believe what we’re being told, we have to take it on trust that there are currently legions of ‘aides’, ‘palace insiders’, ‘friends’ and ‘senior courtiers’ constantly WhatsApping their favourite reporters with the latest gossip. It has been known to happen. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. We just don’t know.

“But trust in this third dimension is further compromised by the fact that none of the major players filtering this story for our consumption is exactly a disinterested bystander. All three of the major newspaper groups most obsessed with Harry and Meghan are themselves being sued by the couple for assorted breaches of privacy and copyright. There is, to any reasonable eyes, a glaring conflict of interest that, for the most part, goes undeclared.”

The relationship between the royal family and the press is one of co-dependence rather than symbiosis. Each brings out the worst in the other. But if Harry is to earn the considerable income that he would obviously like, it can be only as a celebrity, which is to say someone dependent on the media, hate it or not. And celebrities resemble journalists, or army officers, more than they do princes, because any one of them can always be replaced by any other. And, unlike either princes or army officers, they are not judged by their service to some larger cause.

REBECCA LONG-BAILEY’s troubles over abortion make for an interesting clash of sacred values. The continuity Corbyn candidate for the Labour leadership is a praying Roman Catholic. In a letter to the deanery at Sal­ford Cathedral last month, she wrote: “In those quiet moments before sleep every night, I always I pray for help and strength in doing the right thing.”

That much was picked up by The Tablet, and no one noticed. But then the Red Roar, one of the niche political websites that specialise in stirring, found a further quote, in which she said that she personally was opposed to abortion beyond 24 weeks on the grounds of disability, which is presently legal, and that she would ensure that the RC voice was heard in debates.

This got her furiously attacked both by old-fashioned secularists — the journalist Paul Mason posted on Twitter that he did not want Labour policy “dictated from the Vatican” — while Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “And while it’s perfectly acceptable for politicians to have personal beliefs on abortion, what matters is if they allow their personal conviction to stand in the way of women’s ability to act on their own. Currently, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position on this is unclear.”

The word “personal” is doing a lot of work here. It is the word, the perspective, that has changed the 1967 Abortion Act into a charter for abortion on demand. If it is a “personal choice” whether to do something or not, no person can constrain any other from it, and neither can the State. Anyone who argues differently is then assumed to have a defective conscience, and to need re-education. “This year, we hope Rebecca Long-Bailey will visit our clinics, too,” Ms O’Brien wrote. “In doing so, she will gain a true understanding of why personal convictions must not stand in the way of a woman’s ability to act on her own.”

The sanctity of personal choice turns out itself to be a belief that must be policed by collective pressure. But this isn’t conscious hypocrisy: it is probably the way in which all systems of morality must work, since all are the products of culture and must continually be tended and refreshed.

THERE was more anti-Catholicism on view in the reaction to the Government’s approving a faith-selective RC school in Peterborough, but usually as a proxy for fear of Islam. Rachel Sylvester, in The Times, showed how it’s done: “The state education system, which should be about breaking down social and cultural barriers, is being used to divide children up according to their faith . . . a tenth of Britain’s convicted Islamist terrorists came from just five heavily Muslim council wards in Birmingham.”

But these boys (she’s quoting a 2017 survey) all went to secular state schools. Social segregation doesn’t arise from school-admission rules. The windows of every estate agent in the country quantify the value people put on social segregation when they can afford it. That — and not the machinations of the Vatican — is what equality campaigners are really up against.

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