Prince Harry’s ability to attract scandalous headlines reveals a monarchy in thrall to a very modern PR machine
So that’s all right, then. Prince Harry is either a gallant young officer letting off a bit of well-earned steam or he’s the ultimate party animal doing what any red-blooded bloke would surely do given half a chance (and a Duchy of Cornwall credit card). Or perhaps he’s a bit of both.
Either way, listening to some commentators and broadcasters this week, you might think that this was actually a win-win for St James’s Palace: brigadiers and Essex lads loyally on side, marching in step to a chorus of Viva Las Vegas.
And that’s before you count the happy folks in that recession-hit desert resort, a city in which a statue to its royal publicist is surely soon to be erected. Talk about a special relationship!
Indeed, some might be forgiven for thinking, in this brave new world, that the whole thing was set up deliberately by those creative chaps who do image-management for the modern Royal family. No wonder some palace press officers have been likened to celebrity publicists, spoon-feeding whole narratives to lapdog journalists. We shouldn’t be surprised when the prince cast as lovable rogue takes the hint and plays up to the part — and even a bit beyond.
But it’s not all good news. Prince Harry’s latest escapade might mark the point at which British royalty irreversibly becomes a branch of the entertainment industry. Las Vegas 2012 is beginning to look like the last whimper of a dying creed — the notion that those placed in positions of public esteem enter a contract under which they will sacrifice certain freedoms in return for deference and privilege.
The taint of celebrity has been sprayed all over Harry’s horseplay by the American gossip industry, which feeds a voracious world beyond the reach of the Press Complaints Commission. This week, British expats have had only to switch on the television to study Harry’s unorthodox technique for instructing girls in how to hold a pool cue. Like me, they probably found the experience simultaneously disturbing and sullying. Let’s hope none of Harry’s future in-laws was watching.
A life devoted to duty — as exemplified by Harry’s grandmother — rightly earns generous recognition and affection. It underpins the whole system that allows Harry and his relatives to enjoy their privileges undisturbed by revolting peasants. But add celebrity to the mix and the rules change. Sacrifice and respect are elbowed aside by pranks and prurience. It is a process accelerated, not restrained, by press offices anxious to prove their worth and their ability to control the “plot”.
The trouble with Las Vegas-style images is that they get between us and any sacrifice Harry may make either as an army officer or as a pillar of the royal edifice. Youthful antics are best performed by youths and Harry — 28 next month — will increasingly risk sharing the fate of those comedians whose act sags from sexy to seedy overnight.
We may manage to laugh but our laughter should ring hollow. We are watching a comedy at the expense of a fragile institution — one on which the gloss of celebrity can quickly turn toxic.
For much of the monarchy’s recent good health, we are invited to thank the smoothly lubricated workings of the palace PR machine. But under the bright lights of Sin City, some of the moving parts are losing their shine. The Windsors have invested heavily in corporate-style communications, though it is debatable whether they are getting good value for money.
In their dash to market the younger members of the royal “firm” as wholesome family entertainment, complete with an infantilised narrative of their lives and loves, Prince Harry’s press minders have unwittingly prepared the ground for this latest embarrassment. Happy to feed the digital mongrel when times are good — such as the royal wedding or a Jubilee-boosting US network interview, as the Princes did recently with Katie Couric — their outrage when the brute bites back earns little sympathy. Their stars don’t need hyping on Facebook, just better chaperones.
Mind you, tweeting — as Palace officials now do, on an official feed — is a better use of courtiers’ time than the kind of skulduggery practised by an earlier generation of press officers. One of the old crew once boasted publicly of conniving with a friendly editor (curiously, one of those charged recently over phone-hacking) to rearrange the sequence of events when a certain young prince was caught smoking cannabis. A salutary visit to a drug rehabilitation clinic, touted by St James’s Palace as a father’s stern response to this youthful error of judgment, had actually happened before, not after, the offending royal spliff was inhaled.
That young prince was, of course, Harry Wales. At the age of 17, finding his transgression magically wiped clean by a press officer, a protective parent and a forgiving public, it must have seemed that having his cake and eating it was free of risk. In fact, looking around him, he might have thought it was the natural state of affairs.
Ten years on, palace press officers have cleaned up their act but Harry’s magnetic attraction for both scandalous headlines and public soft-heartedness is undiminished. Older, more experienced and proven in battle against the Queen’s enemies, he will surely face with honest contrition any music that is coming his way from army brass or palace panjandrums.
You can almost hear the grown-ups reassuring each other: this time Harry will surely learn that there’s a limit to how often he can get away with it. So bring on the Apache helicopter, arrange a “top gun” photocall and the ever-turning news cycle will work its healing magic.
So should we be pleased? Some commentators, suddenly indulgent, would have us think so. Grey-haired royal experts compete to pull avuncular faces and commiserate with Harry’s confounded bad luck that he is lumbered with the role of younger sibling, while reminding us what a jolly good sort he is.
Similar appeals to the public’s sense of fun were made on behalf of Princess Margaret and Prince Andrew. The parallels are not encouraging. Harry’s uncle was also a gallant helicopter pilot, lionised after the Falklands war and, coincidentally, photographed naked on a subsequent “letting-off-steam” holiday.
Yet the promise of those salad days has done little to bring the Duke of York long-term public respect or, we may suspect, private happiness. His latest brave and typically big-hearted fundraising initiative — abseiling a thousand feet down the Shard — attracted some sour headlines about high living and dodgy friends. Sound familiar?
Mixed messages at home may have led to some confusion, too. In Harry’s early childhood his father was notoriously overheard in conversation with his then mistress. We all know what followed. In comparison, waving your behind at a crowd of camera-wielding Americans is a copper-bottomed expression of royal dignity.
Twenty years later our next king (and the woman who will certainly be his queen) have not had their smooth ascent to the throne impeded by past transgressions. Observing all this, Harry can hardly be blamed if — fairly regularly, as it turns out —he chooses to do just as he pleases and hang the consequences.
So let the lads cheer, the mums coo and the old buffers rheumily rerun their subalterns’ indiscretions. Harry still gives more to the royal show than he takes away, so let’s just forget — if we possibly can — the lingering image of a Prince clutching his tackle while ogling strangers whoop encouragement.
Instead, let’s remember this: a very different image that should live in the minds of those who share Harry’s strange royal world. It is of a distinctly sober royal highness filmed this week scrambling into a Cadillac Escalade in a bleak American parking lot.
As he is driven away to answer whatever reproach his family or their flunkeys have prepared for him, he raises an arm. But he is not waving. He is trying to hide his face.