In the old days, the rules around royal holidays were clear.
If they wanted privacy, the Royals went on vacation to Balmoral, their vast Scottish estate, where they could lock themselves away behind thousands of acres of fabulous mountain scenery, and hunt, shoot, and fish to their hearts’ content for weeks or even months on end.
It was perhaps slightly damp, but if they wanted to go abroad, somewhere sunny or snowy, then there was an unappealing reality to be faced.
That compromise was that they could not be protected in anything like the same way from media intrusion. The press would inevitably be able to scrutinize them during their break.
Prince Charles was the first to try to negotiate with the media over privacy on foreign holidays.
He tried to make a deal—he would agree to pose for a photocall with his family on the first day of the holiday, and the idea was that then the press would leave them alone.
As you can probably imagine, this didn’t work out too well.
The problem is that the value of a staged photograph taken at a photocall with dozens of other photographers is almost nil.
Yes, the Telegraph would obligingly run it on their front page, but the idea that the picture desk at the Sun then told their snappers, “Righto, we got what we came for, have a hot chocolate and come on home,” is as impossible to imagine now as it was then. Many of the photographers were ordered instead to stay on and try to get more pictures; unguarded pictures, candid pictures, unauthorized pictures—pictures, in other words, that would actually sell papers because they might offer a window into the secret lives of the royals.
At first glance, then, William and Kate’s strategy surrounding the secret ski mini break they took to Verbier last weekend was smart. They told no-one they were going—indeed, they were widely expected to be at a London wedding of some friends on Saturday—and invited just one trusted photographer to come with them.
They wisely chose John Stillwell, rather than the perhaps more obvious choice, Chris Jackson, thereby avoiding the accusations of cronyism which might have reared their head had they taken Jackson as Jackson is dating Kate’s PA Natasha Archer.
Stillwell took what are undeniably the most relaxed—and illuminating—pictures of the young royal family we have ever seen. In one memorable image, Kate jokingly chucks a snowball in William’s face.
It’s a fantastic shot, and as the young royals and their team of advisers, including PR head Jason Knauf, reviewed the images on Monday morning before sending six selected pictures out to the media and issuing them on Instagram, they must have been congratulating themselves on a job well done.
Surely the media would be delighted with being provided these intimate images of a very modern royal family for free?
Instead, the ungrateful ink-stained wretches—or “reptiles” as Prince Philip calls journalists—reacted with fury.
Aggressive headlines slammed the palace’s attempts to make the holiday a “state secret” and poured scorn on the “arrangement” with the Press Association photographer Stillwell, which some papers were amusingly quick to condemn as unethical.
The self-righteous fury of the press was inevitable, but the palace then handed the angry media some open goals.
The palace’s refusal to identify the location where the holiday had been taken or how the royals travelled can only be described as idiotic.
It was an arrogant move, reminiscent of the time the palace refused to give out the name of Kate’s dog, Lupo, saying it was “private,” and rather like waving a red rag to a bull.
It took the papers about five minutes to discover that they had been in Courchevel, France. It took a further 24 hours for reporters to unearth the fact that they travelled there on a private jet owned by the Duke of Westminster.
The royals and the press are having a testy week: The Will and Kate holiday fallout coincided with Buckingham Palace complaining to Ipso, the press watchdog, about the Sun’s front-page story that the Queen backed the “Brexit” movement, lobbying for Britain to leave the European Union.
The speed with which the press corps leapt onto Will and Kate of course reflects the wounded pride of owners, editors, and journalists, none of whom had any idea the secret ski trip was taking place. It’s also an indication of just what might be in store for William and Kate if any cracks were ever to appear in their perfect marriage.
But, aside from the media’s sour grapes, there are serious issues being raised by the way in which William and Kate publicly present an image of a modern, young, dynamic monarchy yet appear to secretly lead the life of a Victorian royal (much pampering, little work, and accustomed to being obeyed) with access to a private jet.
Foreign holidays have always caused problems for the young royals. Whether it’s Harry getting naked in Vegas, Kate getting her top off in France or William shooting disgusting amounts of game in Spain at the same time as he releases YouTube videos appealing for conservation, almost every private foreign trip the Waleses have made has turned into a PR disaster.
The weekend dash to Courcheval was no different.
The new fearfulness of the British media has emboldened the Royals to demand that they are not photographed when not on official business.
Ever since the phone hacking scandal broke, the papers have been reluctant to take on Kate and William.
But when you talk to ordinary people, although there is compassion for the fact that William and Kate have to live their life under the microscope, there is also a growing sense of astonishment at the extravagance of their lifestyles.
Kate and William have played the part of a “normal couple” down to a T, but when you see them cheerfully sliding down the side of crisp, French mountainsides, wearing thousands of dollars of ski gear, it’s hard not to wonder just what it is that is so tough about their lives.
The palace made a big play in their media briefing of the fact that this was the couple’s “first family holiday” and the “first time either of the children had played in the snow” as if they were some deserving orphans plucked out of the inner city by the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
But the truth is that Will and Kate have a 10-bedroom house in London, a 12-bedroom house in Norfolk, a blanket exemption from inheritance tax, untold millions in private earnings from vast landholdings across the U.K., cushy, part-time jobs involving less than 20 hours of work per week…the list goes on.
To try to pitch this fabulous, luxury break as a well-deserved respite from a busy life of exhausting public service is to insult the intelligence of the British public. More gravely for the young Royal couple, the media seem to be tiring of their demands for, and expectations of, privacy. The old war of royals vs. press might be rumbling back to life.