William, Harry and the myth of Princess Diana

The unveiling of the Diana statue was the most recent ceremonial act in the mythologization of the Princess of Wales. Her sons, Princes William and Harry, are the ‘high priests’ who have given power to her myth since her death in 1997.

Simply by being her bereaved children, William and Harry, aged 15 and 12 respectively at the time of their mother’s death, were transformed into symbols of human tragedy. Since then, the media has drawn constant comparisons between them and Diana, while simultaneously trying to penetrate the psyches of both princes in order to reveal to us (the audience) how their personalities have been shaped by the loss of their mother.

However, William and Harry have both been active in promoting the Diana myth too. They have emphasized their mother’s saintliness and the idea that she was an innocent victim of press intrusion. We know full well that Diana had her own complex private life and that she played a key role in the creation of her media image. The princes’ mythmaking has therefore been carefully calculated in the way it downplays their mother’s agency and the destabilizing impact that her actions had on the monarchy.

We must ask then: what purpose does William and Harry’s mythmaking serve?

To answer this question, we need to remind ourselves that the princes have developed a more aggressive approach to handling the press than any previous generation of royalty. The message they have promoted – that journalists were complicit in the death of Diana – has worked to justify their own high-profile battles for privacy while also evoking sympathy for them among sections of the UK public.

It would thus seem to be a ‘win-win’ public relations strategy for Diana’s sons.

However, the princes’ combative attitude has also fuelled the fire that has raged periodically between the House of Windsor and some of Britain’s leading newspapers. Harry and his wife Meghan’s difficult experiences with the tabloids in 2019 and early 2020 show how the royals can get burnt in this process, coming off worse as a result of particularly hostile exchanges with journalists. 

William has remained largely untouched by such venom – the sacrosanct king-in-waiting. But this has not prevented him from taking the attack to the media and, in the process, further refashioning the Diana myth to suit his own ends.  

In what now seems to have been an insidious attempt at historical revisionism, the duke of Cambridge made a public statement after it was revealed journalist Martin Bashir had lied to senior BBC managers over how he secured his 1995 Panorama interview with Diana. William used the moment to take aim not just at the unscrupulous Bashir but at the entire BBC. He claimed that the interview drove his parents to divorce and that it played a part in the events that ultimately led to Diana’s death. 

This is, to put it frankly, a fanciful reimagining of the period from late 1995 to 31 August 1997 – the day Diana was killed by a French chauffeur driving dangerously at more than twice the speed limit while under the influence of alcohol. 

It is clear that there were indeed institutional failings within the BBC establishment that meant Bashir’s unsavoury methods were not properly scrutinized. But William’s attack did not aim to set the historical record straight. Rather, it was an ominous attempt to muzzle the broadcaster and suppress the Panorama interview in a wider effort to rewrite the history of the 1990s.

The BBC has, since its founding in 1922, been almost unfailingly loyal to the monarchy and in return has gained special access to royal events and personalities. However, the Panorama interview – now more than a quarter of a century old – represented an unusual break with the sycophancy of the past, something that we viewers were again privilege to in 2019 when Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis grilled Prince Andrew on his connections to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in what was another extremely embarrassing moment for the monarchy that sent deep shockwaves through the institution.

William’s statement was thus a warning shot over the bows of the BBC: toe the line or we will throw you to the wolves. The broadcaster has been cowed by his words having agreed to never show the Panorama interview in full again. At a time when trust in media institutions like the BBC is in decline, the duke of Cambridge’s stinging criticism has also given succour to the enemies of the broadcaster who would like to see it humiliated and undermined.

For the public, this wilful suppression of a historically important interview, and with it the princess’s voice, is the newest dimension of the ever-evolving Diana myth. We are now told to regard the hard, uncomfortable truths that the princess articulated as the irrational ravings of a woman who was, according to her eldest son, not only deceived but paranoid.

The Diana myth, as promoted by those closest to her, is thus developing a hagiographical quality as time passes. Reality is being silenced. Fantasy increasingly fills the void.

There is, though, one force that might work to offset this whitewashed reinterpretation: the story of Diana as presented in Peter Morgan’s The Crown, which has so far proved a major hit with television audiences around the world.

The reason why the current generation of royals would rather forget about the 1990s is that the decade marked a serious low point in the monarchy’s standing in Britain. The Crown has steadily been building to this moment. While the series certainly relies on embellishment as much as it does on truth in its storytelling, the fourth season captured the way the real Diana helped to transform the image of the House of Windsor by making monarchy appear more accessible and personal, despite her own private struggles and misgivings about the way ‘the firm’ operated.

In the final seasons of The Crown (due to begin again in 2022), we will be presented with a version of the failure of the Wales’s marriage and Diana’s dramatic death. In real life, these events led to serious introspection on the part of the royal household, with Queen Elizabeth II and her closest confidants forced to rethink the implications of making modern monarchy about the lives, loves and losses of a single family, when the specific family group in question was so dysfunctional.

Post-Diana, the public image of the British monarchy (and the Prince of Wales) was carefully reconstructed with a focus on brothers William and Harry and their futures. We know that Prince Charles aimed to downsize the monarchy, cutting out those relatives (like Andrew) from frontline service because they could become liabilities. He also sought to build an image as a loving father to two sons who, once he was king, would be his reliable deputies. 

We can therefore characterize the period from 1997 to 2019 as one defined by coherent and largely successful rebuilding. But this positive trajectory was disrupted by the Epstein scandal and to an even greater extent by Harry and Meghan’s decision to give up their royal positions in order to pursue their own personal and professional goals.

The repercussions of ‘Megxit’ – the origins of which can at least partly be attributed to the struggles of an emotionally-troubled prince to reconcile the public role he was required to play with his desire for a happy private life – now mean that the royal family is again engaged in soul searching and undergoing change with increased attention on William and his family to the detriment of his younger brother.

As yet, it is unclear whether the rift that separates the brothers will ever be healed. Their dispute has so far been narrated by the British tabloid press in such a way as to reflect the temper of a politically and generationally divided nation, with William standing in for ‘tradition’, and Harry representing ‘wokeism’. Even if the two men manage to put aside their differences, the media have invested so much in the creation of this royal ‘culture war’ narrative that it seems unlikely it will simply disappear.

Thus, it is through her sons that Diana’s story lives on. Her myth is one of fact and fiction; her legacy one of innovation, rupture and renaissance. And with so many questions unanswered about the futures of William and Harry, doubtless the myth will continue to change and shape shift as the travails, triumphs and tragedies of the House of Windsor unfold for all to see.

Featured image credit: Princess Diana, June 1997. John Matthew Smith. CC. 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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