The BBC was keeping a tight lid on the Princes and the Press (BBC One, Monday) ahead of broadcast. The British royal family had let it be known they were taking a dim view of Amol Rajan’s documentary about Princes William and Harry and their relationship with the media.
With a build-up like that, viewers were braced for fire, brimstone and lashings of fresh tittle-tattle about the many woes of the House of Windsor.
In fact, Rajan’s investigation into the dystopian dynamic between William and Harry and the UK press – or, more specifically, the tabloids – feels like old coals raked over. It is a shopworn, albeit entertaining, portrayal of two dysfunctional institutions: Fleet Street and the British Monarchy. But ultimately it lacks bombshells and is unlikely to prompt much calumny within “the Firm”.
This is one of those docs in which already established facts are presented as the scoop of the century. Did you know the British royals vie for media coverage? Or that royal correspondents do deals with “palace” insiders. And that those same insiders brief against other royal households?
If you’ve watched five minutes of The Crown – or ever perused a British red-top – the answer is that of course you did.
Whatever about The Crown, the small screen comparison that comes to mind is not the Netflix hit but Game of Thrones. Everyone seems to be plotting against everyone else: whether that be hacks competing for exclusives or royals jostling for sycophantic headlines.
And of course the action centres around the “Meg Wedding”, a fairytale in the north followed by a knife in the back in the form of whisperings from on high that Markle could be “difficult”.
Was this latent racism? Or was Markle truly a diva run amok? Harry’s quote “what Meghan wants, Meghan gets” is trotted out by some of the hacks in support of the latter claim. And yet the racism directed at her is undeniable.
Rachel Johnson, sister of the Boris, says that she would never have today written a piece in which she contrasted Kate Middleton's English rose heritage with Markle's "exotic" bloodline.
“It sounds either eugenicist or racist,” she confesses. It was, of course, different back then, she adds, when challenged by Rajan. She penned the article in the distant past of 2017 after all
Some of the journalists interviewed say the press had tried to be positive about William and Harry but that Harry’s suspicion of the media, in particular, was a challenge.
"We were behaving ourselves," says Tim Ewart, former ITN royal correspondent. "We wanted that story to work. That fairytale to work. We wanted to see new royals emerging who were more in touch with society of today."
For the Irish viewer the documentary’s most revealing aspect is what it says about the British psyche. The royals are, on one hand, held in genuine reverence; yet, on the other, they are treated as red meat for the following morning’s headline.
It is a fascinating mess, and this is a highly diverting 60 minutes of television. And the only possible conclusion is: thank goodness we don’t do things like that over here.