The Royals and the Press
Published September 2022
The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II after a reign of more than 70 years has prompted a cascade of retrospectives and reminiscences of the major events and changes of the past quarter-century. These have included the break-up of the British Empire, the reshaping of the world’s politics and economy and the explosion of new technology. There has also been a revolution in the media and the press, including new forms of communication that allow a wider conversation of topics both solemn and trivial.
The queen was often at the forefront of these new technologies, embracing them to become more accessible to her subjects. But more openness led to more scrutiny, more criticism, and more mockery, resulting in an often difficult relationship between the royal family and media which sometimes led members of the family to use official avenues—including the courts—to challenge and even to prohibit certain coverage.
These developments in Great Britain regarding the media and monarchy mirror many of the changes on the American side of “the pond” between the press and government officials. But persistent differences between media law in Britain and the U.S. have led to different results and to different ways of covering high government officials for media in the two countries.
Elizabeth established a new, more accessible attitude upon her ascension to the throne, allowing for the first time live television coverage of her coronation in 1953 despite the objections of then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But the British press discreetly declined to cover
Princess Margaret (Elizabeth’s sister) companion at that event, divorcee Group Captain Peter Townsend, with the editor of the Daily Mirror reportedly saying “we can’t upset the ladies’ day…” But the foreign press was not as reticent, and the British press soon followed.
The queen’s attitude toward the media soured as the rollicking U.K. press began to cover every aspect of the royals and their foibles. In 1969 she allowed the BBC to film a documentary on the domestic life of the royal family. While the program was watched by more than two-thirds of the British population, the queen ultimately regretted the project and the film has not been shown again. On New Year’s Day 1981, as speculation swirled that Prince Charles had finally found a bride—Diana Spencer—the queen shouted at persistent paparazzi photographers that they should “go away,” while Prince Charles wished them “a very happy New Year, and your editors a particularly nasty one!” In November of that year, the queen held a meeting with reporters at which she asked them to calm down their coverage, to no avail. By the end of that year, the royal family’s press secretary called the tabloids “a cancer in the soft underbelly of the nation.”
In 1964, the Sunday Express published photos of Princess Margaret and the queen water‐skiing. The Palace complained to the Press Council, a voluntary organization which was set up by the British media to adjudicate disputes about media coverage. The Council upheld the complaint, and no one else published the photos.
The royal family also made several complaints to the Press Council’s successor, the Press Complaints Commission. In 1992, as the marriage between Prince Charles and Princess Diana was disintegrating, the Palace complained to the Commission about the publication of embarrassing rumors. After being assured that no one in the royal family was providing the embarrassing information, commission chair Lord McGregor of Durris declared that “The most recent intrusive and speculative treatment by sections of the press and indeed by broadcasters of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales is an odious exhibition of journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls.” But it turned out that the insider information was coming directly from Princess Diana herself.
The Commission undertook a comprehensive review of press behavior after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, which was blamed in part on reckless driving of paparazzi who were chasing her. This led to changes in the Commission’s standards regarding privacy, and to the passage of new privacy laws in the U.K.
In 2000, Prince Charles complained about a Sunday Times article reporting that he was talking to the Church of Scotland about being permitted to marry Camilla Parker Bowles despite their mutual divorces. The Times apologized for the article. Five years later, the couple married in a civil ceremony that was endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. That same year Prince William complained when OK! Magazine published photographs of him in Chile during his gap year; the Commission upheld the prince’s grievance.
The royals have also filed legal suits in the British courts over media coverage, sometimes in an effort to stop publication.
Princess Diana sued Mirror Group Newspapers in 1993 for printing photos of her exercising in a gym; the case ended in a settlement.
Prince Charles has filed several lawsuits against the media. In 1995 he obtained court injunctions stopping two household employees from disclosing information that they had learned while serving as a housekeeper and a valet. The valet was barred from releasing more information after he gave photos of the prince’s bedroom to the News of the World and described the prince’s affair with Bowles. While the housekeeper’s book was banned in Britain, she published it in the U.S. in 1995. The prince then sued the editor of the newspaper Today for publishing excerpts from the book; the editor ended up pleading guilty to contempt of court and paying £7,000 to charity. The housekeeper, meanwhile, stayed out of the U.K. for several years. Upon her return in 2000, the Palace expressed interest in pursuing the case.
In 2005 Prince Charles sued The Mail on Sunday for publishing portions of his personal diaries regarding the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China, which the newspaper obtained from an identified source. While the Palace eventually released the diary entries, the case continued and the court ordered the newspaper to pay 80 percent of the prince’s legal costs, to be donated to charity. The newspaper’s appeal was denied.
In 2012 the Palace’s lawyers sued a photo agency that distributed photos outside the U.K. of Kate Middleton—then Prince William’s girlfriend—playing tennis; the agency settled the case by donating £5,000 to charity.
During a three-day period in 2013, courts issued two injunctions against disclosure of information about the royal family: one to stop The Mail on Sunday from publishing an interview with a former royal servant, and the other to stop The Guardian from identifying the royal aide who sought the original injunction.
Last year, the queen threatened to sue over statements by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle—who in 2020 resigned from their royal roles and relocated to California, but retain the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex—about her and other members of the royal family.
The Duke and Duchess have publicly complained about press coverage and paparazzi harassment, and have threatened or filed a number of lawsuits against the media in the past few years. In 2019, Markle sued over publication by The Mail on Sunday of a private letter she sent to her father; the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Markle was affirmed on appeal. A separate lawsuit by Prince Harry against The Mail on Sunday over a story on his military status after his resignation was settled in December last year; the prince then complained that the apology which was part of the settlement was inadequate.
The couple also sued a photo agency in California state court over drone photos of their son Archie playing with Meghan’s mother, a case that was settled with an apology and payment of legal costs. Another lawsuit over photos of Archie led the defendant photo agency to declare bankruptcy.
And just this past July, Prince Harry won an initial ruling in a libel lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday over an article claiming that he had tried to stifle press coverage of a separate lawsuit that Harry filed over personal security during visits to the U.K.
Most of these complaints and lawsuits would not be viable in the United States. First of all, there is no media industry organization to register complaints with; various regional “press councils” established in the 1970s in the U.S. to serve this purpose gradually disappeared due to lack of support from the institutional press. Also, the U.K.’s privacy laws place more restrictions on what information and locations are restricted from public scrutiny than American law. And British libel laws do not impose the high standards for a successful claim that U.S. law does, particularly when the plaintiff is a public official, a public figure, or otherwise involved in matters of public concern. (In 2013 the U.K. did impose higher burdens on libel plaintiffs suing over matters of public interest, while making other changes in defamation law.) Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that prior restraints—stopping something from being published—is possible under the First Amendment only with the most sensitive information, such as current military secrets.
In short, in the United States, it is more difficult for political leaders and other public figures to win libel and privacy claims than it is in Great Britain, or to stop publication of material: as several prominent individuals—including the immediate former president—have found out.
Eric P. Robinson focuses on media and internet law as associate professor at the UofSC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Of Counsel to Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant. He has worked in media law for more than 25 years and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions are his own, not necessarily those of his employers.