Meet the Royal Press: a Q&A with Richard Palmer

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Richard Palmer is the royal correspondent for the U.K.’s Daily Express. He’s one of the most active royal correspondents on Twitter with over 20 thousand followers. His popularity is no doubt due to his honest commentary on the royals and his ready interaction with his followers. Fortunately, that same openness allowed me to quiz him a bit. Enjoy!

What’s your background and how did you begin covering the royal family?

I’ve been a reporter for 30 years in various guises and have written about a whole range of subjects, from the environment to crime, education, international news ( particularly the Balkans and the Middle East), and sport. I spent eight years at The Sunday Times, worked in Paris and the Middle East regional headquarters in Nicosia for Agence France-Presse, covered sport for the Sunday and then Daily Express, helped set up an internet start-up, and then returned to the Daily Express at the end of 2001.

In 2002 the then royal correspondent quit and the paper, which has always prided itself on strong royal coverage, had nobody specialising in covering the Royal Family for a year. When a new editor arrived in 2003, I was asked if I would be interested. To be frank, I’d never really been interested in the Royal Family but it seemed a good job on a mid-market paper like ours and it was a way of getting a healthy pay rise. It has its ups and downs but generally, I love it. There’s a fair smattering of foreign travel, you get to meet a real cross section of people from heads of state to the homeless, and most people usually have an interest in and opinion about the Royal Family.

What have been some of your favorite experiences on tour with Harry?

Prince Harry’s tours usually make good copy but I think the most memorable one for me was in 2010 when William and Harry did their first official joint tour of southern Africa. We were in Botswana and then a small group of us flew ahead to Lesotho to act as a pool covering the brothers’ arrival in the mountain kingdom. We spent the night with the royal party in a lodge in a very isolated area, covered them meeting young cow herders who had walked miles to see them, and then watched them riding on horseback through the mountains in a very colourful ceremony the next day.

It was just all so colourful and, for a royal story, quite intimate, as we were a small group. I recall, for example, William and Harry offering us drinks and chatting away at the lodge. I’ve been to Lesotho three times with Harry now. Prince Seeiso is a really nice guy and I think what he and Harry have done for the people there through Sentebale is a great credit to both of them. The first time we went there, UN and other aid agencies were saying they had been trying to highlight the effect of HIV/Aids on Lesotho and neighbouring countries for several years and then suddenly a huge number of international media organisations were desperate to find out all they could because one member of the British Royal Family was there.

Sadly, I missed the Diamond Jubilee Caribbean tour because the paper wanted me to stay in Britain to cover Kate’s engagements with the Queen. The trip earlier this year to DC, Colorado, New York and Connecticut was a good one too, though the pace sagged a bit in Colorado.

As he’s matured, how has his attitude towards the media changed?

Harry has got better at dealing with the media over the years but he always wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s less diplomatic than his brother and he makes it fairly plain that he’s not particularly fond of the press. When he was a bit younger, he was just plain hostile or standoffish but he’s mellowed as he’s got older and is able to turn on the charm when it’s needed. He’s had spells when he has been painted as the black sheep of the family in the media soap opera but he seems to have got over that.

I like the cheeky grin and glint in his eye and in some respects his willingness to call a spade a spade. I’m similar. However, personally, I think he’s lucky that he’s had such a good press in the past year after some of the things he’s said. The interviews he gave in Afghanistan made him look like a spoilt brat. He was as inaccurate about the media as some of the stories he had complained about and I know of several editors who were infuriated by his comments. In the United States, he was unnecessarily antagonistic – I’m thinking specifically about that speech he made in Colorado when he said witheringly that it was great to see the media covering the Warrior Games, though it wasn’t always nice to see us – and made it plain he was only interested in talking to the media because of how many people he could reach via us.

In his defence, I’d say at least he was being honest; both sides need each other but we’re never going to be his friends and the sooner media folk realise that the better. In fact, although he got our backs up, he still got good press because he gave us good words and pictures and in the end that’s all we care about. Most of us recognise we’re not exposing Watergate here. In media terms, royal stories are generally a bit of light relief from all the doom and gloom in the world. If we’ve got something interesting to say about him, we’re happy.

How much do you think the popularity of and interest in Harry and William is due to their mother?

I think the fact that William and Harry are Diana’s boys is a huge part of the attraction for many of their older admirers around the world. I’ve seen lots of middle aged women holding up cards, photos and other Diana memorabilia when they’ve turned out to see the princes. They see the physical resemblance, particularly in William, and they see that Diana’s sons have inherited her common touch.

For Harry’s younger fans in particular, I think the attraction is that this is perhaps the world’s most eligible bachelor. Every teenage girl wants to marry a prince, though if they thought about all the baggage that goes with being a princess they might have second thoughts. It will be interesting to see how perceptions of him change if and when he settles down with a woman, whether that’s Cressida Bonas or someone else.

Do you think his choice of being an active duty solider has been a wise one?

I think his choice of military career has been a very wise one. As far as I can tell, he was obsessed with all things military from a very early age and he seems to be a very good soldier and helicopter pilot. If he wasn’t, I’m not sure who would tell us but the Army wouldn’t entrust men and very expensive machinery to him on the frontline if they didn’t think he was up to it.

I think officer training has been the making of both Harry and his brother. It’s helped make them more rounded young men. I absolutely understand and respect Harry’s desire to fight on the frontline. There’s no point in being a soldier and not being up for that. I’ve never understood the view that he couldn’t be risked or was somehow placing the men around him at even greater danger. William, of course, is in a slightly different position as a future King but I still feel he could have been sent to Camp Bastion or some other heavily fortified compound to do a short tour of duty doing a job inside the wire in Afghanistan.

Ministers and military chiefs always worry about the propaganda value of a prince being killed or captured by the enemy but for me it’s a question of making sure they’re doing a job that minimises the risks to the point where they’re acceptable. There’s a risk every time they get into a car. Incidentally, I’ve heard officers suggest several times that having a prince in their unit is wonderful for recruiting but I’ve never found any evidence for that. As far as I can tell, recruitment depends on unemployment levels, what other careers are available, prospects of career advancement, the likelihood of seeing action balanced against the likelihood of getting killed or maimed.

What role do you think he’ll have when William is king?

I see Harry staying in the Army for 25 to 30 years if he can and helping his family out on official duties as much as possible within restrictions placed on him by a full-time military career. By the time William is King though, his military career might be coming to an end. William and Kate will probably have at least two children in their twenties by then so Harry will have dropped to at least fifth in line to the throne, maybe lower. As the King’s brother, he’ll still be an important figure in the monarchy, just as Princess Margaret was as the Queen’s sister. I imagine he’ll play a similar role to, say, Prince Andrew at the moment but his children will probably be of more interest to the public than he is by then.

Given the Windsor longevity, by the time William is king it’s likely most of his subjects will only know Diana as a note in a history book. How do you think that will affect the public’s view of him and Harry?

Our former editor, Peter Hill, used to say that Diana would become a religion in the future but I beg to differ. I imagine there will still be conspiracists who think she was murdered but I think only the elderly and real royalty fans will see William and Harry in terms of Diana by then. Few Britons could tell you now who Princess Alexandra is or the Duchess of Gloucester, even though they were once the subject of intense interest. Although Diana had a huge impact on the monarchy, I think memories of her will fade inevitably. William and Harry will be judged more on what kind of parents they are by then, I should imagine and, of course, on their marriages and how they lead their lives in public and private.

With online-only media and citizen journalism on the rise, what does the future of royal reporting look like?

I fear for royal reporting, as I do for other forms of news-gathering. It’s an expensive business if done properly but many people have come to regard news as a commodity for which they shouldn’t have to pay. Newspaper bosses have started predicting that print has perhaps only 5-7 years left before it becomes unviable. Everyone is switching resources online but, unfortunately, I don’t believe anyone has yet found a way of generating the sort of income from online publishing only to pay for royal reporters, for example, to travel around the world covering stories. I live in hope though that people will get used to paying for their news on tablets and in other forms online and that the traditional role of a reporter can continue.

Failing that, I can foresee a future in which a small number of subsidised or state-funded journalists produce very deferential, uncritical coverage and bloggers and websites without the resources to fund proper journalism engage in commentary and speculation based on reported sightings and photos snatched on mobile phones by citizen journalists.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely believe there is a place for citizen journalism and social media. I have found many stories on Twitter, for example, and have been grateful for the help of people with superior knowledge than mine on social media. I just believe there is still a place for traditional news organisations sorting the wheat from the chaff, testing claims, and deciding what is important/funny/relevant/true for the general reader (though, of course, we regularly get it wrong.)

When you’re not covering the royals or humoring people from Twitter, what do you like to do?

When I’m not working, I like to relax with my wife Liz and our two sons, Tom and Kit, our family and friends and our flat-coated retriever, Rudi. We live in a village in the South Downs National Park in Hampshire about 55 miles south of London. Football is my passion. I still play five a side soccer every Sunday night and I’m a season ticket holder and shareholder of my local club, Portsmouth.

Finally, give me a Harry headline from 2023.

“Harry and Cressie order mischievous daughter Princess Charlotte to behave after prep school mayhem.”

Thanks to Richard for taking the time to share his thoughts. Definitely give him a follow on Twitter (@royalreporter) and check out his blog on the Daily Express.

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