Covering the Royal Family: “They grants reporters from the tabloids access, and in return they publish flattering articles.”

From a Times Insider column by Katie Van Syckle headlined “The Image and the Intrigue: Covering the Royal Family”:

Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made it clear that the inner workings of Buckingham Palace are largely mysterious. Harry suggested that information is often distorted by a mutually beneficial relationship between the royal family and the British tabloids. Mark Landler, a former White House correspondent and Hong Kong bureau chief for The New York Times, began reporting on the British monarchy when he became the London bureau chief in 2019. Here, he discusses the obstacles involved in covering the royals.

What is the biggest challenge in reporting on the royal family?

The opaque nature of the institution. It’s not as if Queen Elizabeth holds news conferences or invites in reporters for background conversations. Much of the intrigue that dominates royal family coverage comes necessarily second-, third- or even fourth-hand.

Is there anything you have to do differently when covering the royals?

The biggest adjustment is understanding that this is not like covering the White House or any other government institution. It is actually more akin to writing about the senior ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, where the machinations play out behind closed doors.

What other beats, or reporting assignments, feel most similar to this one? Is it more like covering Hollywood or the White House? Or none of the above?

There is an unmistakable dash of Hollywood about the beat, though as the Meghan-and-Harry saga illustrates, the royals handle public relations very differently. And while you can’t cover it like the White House, there was an odd parallel between Buckingham Palace and Donald Trump’s White House — a sense of a king surrounded by his jealous courtiers….

What do you think was the most significant impact of the Oprah interview?

Meghan’s claim that a member of the royal family raised concerns about the skin color of her future child will resonate loudest and longest. For a country like Britain, which is confronting its own legacy of racism, allegations of racism at the highest levels of the royal family are devastating. We’ve now seen Harry’s brother, William, flatly deny that the family is racist.

The rift between the couple and the family is, above all, a missed opportunity: Having a biracial woman like Meghan representing the queen in the British Commonwealth would have been a tremendous asset. Her inability to find a place in the family sends a very different message.

When Harry said there was an “invisible contract” between the palace and the tabloids, what do you think he meant? What do Americans not understand about the British tabloids and their relationship with the royals?

Harry was describing what he views as a devil’s bargain: The royal family grants reporters from the tabloids access and curries their favor, and in return they publish flattering articles. It’s an arrangement that dates to the 1920s when the tabloids first emerged as a force, and it has worked well for both sides — except when it hasn’t. Harry has long blamed the tabloids for the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash after a high-speed chase involving the paparazzi….

Katie Van Syckle is a senior staff editor at The Times.

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