The royal beat goes on, but dully

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON -- Oh, how Judy Wade longs for the days when the royal press rat pack could get its claws into real stories, like weddings and births.

Now, the glamour and fun are gone. Will the Prince and Princess of Wales divorce? Only the lawyers and accountants know for sure. Can Prince Edward find true love and happiness with Sophie Rhys-Jones, the public relations executive? Dear, how dull. And will young Prince William be allowed to grow up in privacy at Eton College? Be serious.

"There are no real stories anymore," says Ms. Wade, who has covered the royals for 17 years. "It's all over. We've killed the golden goose."

The royal beat goes on -- but there's less truly stirring gossip to report. After you've read transcripts of Charles and Diana uttering sweet nothings -- to other lovers -- can you really get excited about another royal wedding? And if you've seen one picture of a topless Duchess of York having her toes sucked by an American financier, you've seen them all.

That, of course, hasn't quelled the appetite of the public and the news media for royal gossip.

Charged with ferreting out the morsels of the royal soap opera is a cynical, take-no-prisoners band of reporters. Its members fight for "scoops" in a world in which nuggets of trivia are bought from royal servants and friends, and pictures come courtesy of photographers carrying camera lenses the size of bazookas.

'No job for a grown-up'

"We all say that this is no job for a grown-up," says Ms. Wade, who worked for the leading daily tabloid, The Sun of London, before landing with Hello, a weekly that makes People seem like a journal of hard-hitting investigations.

"The sad thing about the Windsors is that they are not superhuman," she says. "They're just ordinary. They have a miserable time."

Perversely, the royal beat is both among the more prestigious in the country and the ultimate in dirty-laundry journalism. The writers get noticed by editors and royalty. And, boy, do they get read. It's enough to give a reporter a sense of being above -- and below -- the rest of society.

The king of the rat pack, James Whitaker of the Daily Mirror, doesn't even want to talk of his 25 years on the beat unless a little cash is involved.

"We're all whores," he says.

The beat might seem silly to Americans who have not been raised on a steady diet of British tabloids, which thrive on exposing the private lives -- mostly sexual -- of soccer stars, politicians, even public school headmasters. But the royal beat lures journalists who become adept at stakeouts. They won't bat an eye at paying off sources. In prying into the lives of the Windsors, they are resourceful to an extreme.

The reporter considered the sharpest of the current lot is Richard Kay of the Daily Mail. A stint covering "the troubles" between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland prepared him for a decade on the royal beat. When Diana went on a damage-control operation after an embarrassing revelation, she turned to Mr. Kay.

The other tabs figured if they couldn't beat him, then at least they could make him part of the story. So there was a photo of Mr. Kay talking with the princess in the back seat of a car.

"I found my whole life turned over," he says. "It changed my view of my colleagues. It was a surreal experience being on the other end of the lens."

Mr. Kay is serious about his work. Like the dozen or so other regulars from London's six tabloids, the more respectable broadsheets, and various magazines and television networks who usually make the royal rounds, he reports to the big events armed with a cellular telephone and binoculars. Three-quarters of the research for the story is just reading the faces of the royals -- to see who is happy and who is sad, who is in and who is out.

The travel is brutal. If Diana goes off to Italy, so does Mr. Kay. If the queen does Moscow, the rat pack follows.

He admits it's getting tougher to come up with juicy stories.

"It's a harder beat to report, and at the same time, the readers are much more jaundiced," he says. "I look back at what I wrote five years ago and cringe. We dutifully went along to all these set piece events in order to cover the royal family. And now we see how syrupy it all was."

For Mr. Kay, it was the 1992 publication of Andrew Morton's book, "Diana, Her True Story," that changed the game of royal reporting. The book, written apparently with Diana's cooperation, alleged that she had made five halfhearted suicide attempts over her unhappy marriage to Charles and suffered from the eating disorder bulimia.

For the royal reporters, the book confirmed their worst suspicions about the royal family and about the royal spin doctors at Buckingham Palace.

"For so many years, all of us bought the palace line even if we knew there were other things going on," Mr. Kay says. "It sort of suited everyone. It was the right story. When Morton's book came out, the feeling was we've been duped by the palace and we've been duping the public.

"We're much more cynical now."

'Conspiracy of silence'

Royal reporting has changed greatly since 1936 when the press barons engaged in a months-long "conspiracy of silence," to cover up the romance of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore. Buckingham Palace had requested the blackout, and the press obediently complied.

The London papers told their readers nothing, even as foreign newspapers reported the saga. It was the Yorkshire Post that broke the British embargo by reporting on an address by the Bishop of Bradford that was guardedly critical of the king. The Post mentioned the foreign press reports, saying "they plainly have a foundation in fact."

From the 1950s through the 1970s, royal press secretaries in effect told the papers what to write. During this era, the press was encouraged to portray the royal family as an example of what every British family should be. Sure, there were scandals, some of which even got into the papers, such as Princess Margaret calling off her wedding to a divorced Royal Air Force captain. But by and large, what the press secretaries wanted is what the papers printed.

And then came Diana, the fairy-tale princess who ignited a tabloid frenzy when she was wooed and wed in 1981 by Charles, heir to the throne.

The royal romance would become the royal nightmare. Even the royals' spokesmen have had to adapt to the new climate. It's nothing for a reporter to call a spokesman past midnight to find out if Charles has purchased expensive earrings, and, by the way, who are they for.

"Tabloids are simply one element of the media in this country, in covering the monarchy and the royal family," says a Buckingham Palace spokesman. "There are other important parts of the media that show an interest in the substance of the institution. But at the same time, everyone recognizes that there is more emphasis these days on entertainment than information."

There are some critics who say the royal rat pack has gone too far.

Hugo Vickers, a biographer and conservative pundit, joined the rat pack for a royal tour of Russia. He was horrified by what he saw, writing that coverage of the trip confirmed "the fundamental dishonesty and stirring of the tabloids." He said that instead of reporting on a truly historic trip, the rat pack was desperate to detail alleged foul-ups by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

"I was surprised by how much the pack knew," Mr. Vickers says. "I found them a fairly alarming bunch."

Warning to reporters

He is not alone in his disdain. The head of Britain's Press Complaints Commission has warned reporters to stay away from Prince William at Eton. The move was seen by many as official recognition that years of tabloid battering have diminished the monarchy.

Members of the pack vow to keep the focus on the adults. Still, that is hardly good news for the Windsors.

Mr. Kay says the press will continue to serve a useful function in detailing important issues of royal character, even if the stories are often tawdry. But he admits the royal marriage breakups have taken their toll on both the reporters and the readers.

"There was a spell from late 1992 to the beginning of this year where there was one preposterous story after another," he says. "Then, the public got fed up with our incessant coverage. They got tired of reading the trivializing details about the royals.

"But they are so interested in the royal family."

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