The Swiss ski resort of Klosters has provided a backdrop to a number of significant royal events.
It was there in 1988 that Prince Charles survived a fatal avalanche, which killed a friend and where, in 1992, Diana, Princess of Wales found out her father had died.
And it was there, nearly exactly 17 years ago to the day in 2004 when it was revealed to the world -with a suitable tabloid flourish – the future British King had nabbed his first steady squeeze.
“Finally … Wills gets a girl” The Sun announced on its front page next to secretly shot paparazzi photos showing the Prince and Kate Middleton sharing a T-bar and smiling at one another.
Turns out the 21-year-old duo, who were then housemates at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, were doing more than simply revising for their finals together.
On that April day, Kate was outed for the first time as a royal girlfriend, thus putting permanent press crosshairs on her Zara-clad back and firing the starting pistol on photographers stalking the backstreets of Chelsea in pursuit of shots of her.
Now, all of those lovey-dovey Klosters pictures might be nothing more than a romantic moment on the couple’s long and winding road to the altar, something they fish out to entertain their three kids when it’s nanny’s night off and the Phenergan is yet to kick in.
However, looking back at those shots now and something very interesting comes into focus, namely that what the young couple did afterwards highlights just how badly Harry and Meghan Duke and Duchess of Sussex botched things.
Let’s get a couple of things straight here: To be a royal girlfriend was never a particularly envious role. Sure, one might get invited for grand country house weekends and who could beat the frisson of pashing beneath the palace gates for the first time? (Also, snogging next to a few priceless Rembrandts or just outside the throne room must be quite the aphrodisiac.)
The downsides though were legion, the most weighty being, of course, dating a Windsor meant being hunted ceaselessly by the press.
By the time 2016 rolled around, Prince Harry’s two most serious relationships – with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas – had foundered and ultimately failed in part because of the intensity of the media scrutiny.
Cupid, luckily, had other plans for the former army Captain and in June of that year he was introduced to actress Meghan Markle on a blind date. The rest is a story of such high highs and low lows it would make Cinderella want to have lengthy lie down.
When their romance was revealed, it was entirely understandable (and applaudable) Harry would want to protect his girlfriend from the media onslaught that followed, going so far as to have Kensington Palace put out a statement excoriating the media for the sexist and racist coverage of the Suits star.
But what followed was a steady escalation of animosity and bile, on both sides.
During the Sussexes’ nearly universally applauded Australian and South Pacific tour in 2018 the newly married duke told the journalists covering the trip: “Thanks for coming, even though you weren’t invited.” (Raising the question, what would be point of a foreign tour if there was no one to cover it aside from cheering monarchists shooting jerky Facebook videos?)
Meanwhile, the British press took umbrage during Meghan’s pregnancy for her touching her bump in public and even raised the question of whether her favourite snack (avocados, natch) was “fuelling drought and murder”.
In 2019, during their southern African tour, the prince snapped at Sky reporter Rhiannon Mills after she asked an unscheduled question after a visit to a health centre, saying: “Rhiannon, don’t behave like this.”
The following month, Harry said in a statement his wife was “one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences – a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year” and that “put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people”.
A flurry of lawsuits in the UK and the US followed.
Speaking to Oprah Winfrey last month, the Sussexes’ identified the press as a key reason they ultimately decided to quit their royal gigs and the UK.
A week after the interview aired in the UK, broadcaster ITV was forced to edit part of the programme after the prime time special “included misleading and distorted headlines which portrayed British press coverage of the couple as racist,” per the Telegraph.
But what William and Kate have proven in the years since 2004 is that to stand up for yourselves and to guard their family’s privacy does not require declaring all-out-war on Fleet Street: nor does it have to be a choice between kowtowing to the press or setting oneself up in litigious opposition.
Make no mistake: the Cambridges have had a tough time of it, too, at the hands of publishers.
In 2005, lawyers acting for Kate wrote to editors and the Press Complaints Commission claiming that photos of her taking a bus breached the watchdog’s code; in 2007, after William put out a statement warning against the “harassment” of Kate after she was chased down her street by an estimated 50 photographers and cameramen on her 25th birthday; in 2012 a paparazzo staked out her a remote holiday house her family was staying to snap pictures of them playing tennis; in 2012 the by-now Duchess was photographed topless during a holiday in France; the following year a snapper covertly snapped the pregnant royal swimming during a Seychelles babymoon and then after the arrival of their son Prince George, the couple revealed in 2015 the press had stalked the tot and his nanny and had been found hiding in the fields around their rural Norfolk home.
As recently as 2016, Kate made a privacy complaint to the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisation, which was upheld, after several news sites published shots of the Prince George sitting on a police motorbike at Kensington Palace.
Yet despite all of this, William and Kate are mature and pragmatic enough to realise they need to have a decent working relationship with the media.
While the dynamic between the palace and Fleet Street things have been particularly fraught at times, underpinning much of this is the understanding they need one another.
Sure, the advent of social media has disrupted this unspoken accord to some degree but the essential mutual necessity holds.
Which is why on each of the Cambridge kids’ birthdays, William and Kate put out new shots of the young princes and princess, and why during normal times, they agree to having a carefully chosen snapper shoot the kids as they start the school year.
Steadily meting out new images of the family gives the nosy public a modicum of entree into their lives and for the Duke and Duchess it guarantees their family enjoys a level of privacy that would have been unthinkable during William’s childhood.
To take such a practical view does not translate to knock-kneed appeasement. Over the years, William and Kate have repeatedly taken stands against media intrusion, including calling in the lawyers at times, while still managing to build what looks like a working relationship with the experienced journalists deployed to cover the palace.
Recently, royal reporter Camilla Tominey (who broke the news that Harry and Meghan were an item) revealed that after William and Kate’s engagement press conference in 2010, Kate was introduced to the journalists who cover the royal family.
“I still have fond memories of a then Kate Middleton … showing me her huge sapphire and diamond ring,” Tominey has written.
Beyond that, William and Kate seem to understand that the vast, vast majority of public interest in them is inherently rooted in deep-seated affection. The British public, and parts of the world, care about and are invested in the royal family.
This is an immutable fact and the reason why, no matter the barrage of lawsuits, the media will keep reporting on the Cambridges, the Sussexes, and the Queen ad nauseum. (Prince Andrew is a whole other ball game …)
That unwavering level of interest in and fascination with their lives – an unfortunate, lifelong consequence of being a member of the royal family – is something that Harry and Meghan seem to have never quite made peace with.
What would have happened if back in 2019, they had tried to come to some sort of detente with the press? If the media had agreed to stop peddling an incessant stream of nitpicking invective and the Sussexes had in turn acknowledged the fact they would always be objects of intense global obsession and agreed to carefully controlled moments of access in return? Would things have still deteriorated quite so badly?
Consider this: Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis have never been photographed leaving the school gates, going to swimming lessons or buying new shoes; when they have been spotted whizzing about the Kensington Palace gardens on their bikes in view of the public, big images don’t end up on the front of newspapers, the reason being, William and Kate, through gritted teeth most likely, have come to an understanding with the media and can guarantee them a level of protection.
Will Harry and Meghan be able to achieve the same level of protection for their kids, too? For Archie and his soon-to-arrive sister’s sake, let’s dearly hope so.
There are seven words that have come up again and again since Megxit: it didn’t have to be this way. And when it comes to the Sussexes and the media, it really didn’t have to be this way. Just ask William and Kate.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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