In the past week, the Australian magazine, “Women’s Day” published unauthorized photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 honeymoon on North Island in the Seychelles. The photographs portray the royal couple walking hand in hand on the beach, the Duke in floral board shorts and the Duchess in a black bikini. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are reportedly upset that their privacy was violated. According to a St. James palace representative, “The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s honeymoon was obviously a private occasion, and we would ask people to respect their privacy.” Most of the mainstream British newspapers have respected the royal couple’s wishes, declining to reprint the Australian photographs for their readers.
While media commentary on the photographs has focussed on the relationship between the monarchy and the press, there is an additional facet to the royal family’s displeasure at the publication of the unauthorized honeymoon photos. The release of candid photographs of the royal family’s private moments has the potential to detract from their perceived political significance and make them appear to be the same as any other celebrities caught on camera by the paparazzi, a circumstance experienced by the late Princess Diana.
Queen Elizabeth II recognized the danger that overexposure of the royal family’s private moments to the public created for the monarchy’s prestige. The courtship, engagement and marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales during the early 1980s attracted such intense interest from the media that the Queen took the unprecedented step of holding a meeting with senior representatives of the press to indicate her concern about the constant invasion of her daughter-in-law’s privacy.
The Queen’s engagement with the media appeared to result in greater privacy for the Prince and Princess of Wales until they departed for a second honeymoon in the Bahamas, in 1982. Despite the Bahamanian government’s expulsion of photographers caught stalking the royal couple on vacation, photographers from the Daily Star and The Sun acquired photographs of the visibly pregnant Princess swimming in the ocean. The contrast between the Queen’s reaction to the publication of these images and the defense put forward by the editorials of the tabloid press demonstrate very different attitudes regarding Diana’s significance as a public figure.
Although the royal family does not usually respond to the press, the Queen issued a statement calling the unauthorized photographs “tasteless behaviour” that “is in breach of normally accepted British standards (Tina Brown, The Diana Chronicles, p. 242-243).” The Queen’s stance made clear that she believed her daughter-in-law was entitled to privacy and dignity, particularly while she was expecting a future heir to the throne.
The Sun editorial seemed oblivious to the Queen’s concerns, the Princess’s apparent desire for privacy on her holiday or the political significance of her pregnancy. The Sun insisted, “The pictures were carefree, innocent and delightful. They brought summer into the lives of millions of our readers back in chilly Britain.” This justification reduced Diana to the status of any other celebrity whose activities delighted the British public. The Sun’s insistence that Diana looked wonderful in the photos did not respond to the Queen’s displeasure that photographs of her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy had been distributed through the tabloid press. This treatment of Diana was very different from her own experience. The Queen’s pregnancies were not discussed in the media prior to the release of official announcements and unauthorized photographs of her condition did not appear in the newspapers.
The unauthorized release of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 honeymoon photographs is reminiscent of the distribution of photographs of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s second honeymoon in 1982. Although Catherine has not experienced the degree of daily scrutiny experienced by Diana, both sets of photographs represent depictions of royal couples as ordinary celebrities without reference to their political significance. As the experiences of the Prince and Princess of Wales demonstrate, the invasion of an individual royal couple’s privacy has the potential to undermine the image of the monarchy.