There is talk that Prince William may quit university to escape harassment by the tabloid press, but such intrusion is nothing new. Queen Victoria was forced to grapple with the mass media and its insatiable appetite for royal gossip, writes John Plunkett.
" Jenkins' eye, in flunkey-frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, Jenkins's pen turns them to shape... "
" Jenkins in Paris - Victoria's visit to Louis Napoleon ", Reynolds's Newspaper , August 26 1855.
Queen Victoria was the first monarch who had to cope with the kind of intense media attention that has become the norm for British royalty.
During her reign, the growth of the mass media was of significant benefit to the royal family. The advent of Sunday newspapers such as the News of the World , the development of illustrated journalism and, later, the first royal photographs, provided intimate coverage of the public and the domestic activities of Victoria and her kin. But at the same time, the monarchy became subject to the demands and intrusions that come hand-in-hand with such media interest.
The careers of two 19th-century journalists - Thomas Beard and Rumsey Forster - exemplify this double-edged relationship. Forster became a totemic figure symbolising the pressure the press could bring to bear on the monarchy. In contrast, Beard, who was court newsman or press secretary for 23 years, epitomises the way in which the royal household tried to manage the growing number of reporters eager for stories.
Forster was a correspondent for the Morning Post in the 1840s and 1850s.
His paper was infamous for its coverage of high-society events, to the extent that Punch aptly christened it the "Fawning Post". Forster himself acquired the mocking label of "Jenkins" because of his excessive attention to the minutiae of royal occasions. His royal reportage was frequently attacked for its combination of intrusion and idolatry. On one occasion in 1844, when Prince Albert was returning from the Isle of Wight on the royal yacht, Jenkins managed to surreptitiously join the small crew. Albert noticed him when he was standing only a few feet away on the deck, and the hapless reporter was roughly banished to a small boat being towed astern.
As soon as the royal yacht approached Portsmouth, two sailors put Forster off close to the shore. A wade of half a mile through soft mud was the reward for his labour.
Jenkins' efforts were extreme; nevertheless they symbolised the way royal reportage was characterised by equal measures of disrespect and deference.
Satirical journals such as Punch and radical media such as Reynolds's Newspaper frequently attacked the sycophantic coverage of Victoria.
Jenkins' purple prose was claimed to falsify the gloss of the monarchy in the same way that its true nature had formerly been hidden by the ceremonial splendour of the court. In 1846, Punch published a mock proclamation from Victoria to the press, demanding that "all Vain, Silly, and Sycophantic verbiage shall cease, and good, Straightforward, Simple English be used in all Descriptions of all Progresses made by Ourself, Our Royal Consort, and Our Dearly Beloved Children".
Punch was even more vitriolic towards the intrusiveness of journalists, who were accused of dogging Victoria's trail during her highland retreats.
Nowhere are their excesses more evident than in an engraving from Punch published in 1848. It shows a Paul Pry, or eavesdropper, peeping through Victoria's bedroom keyhole in order to sketch the royal chest of drawers.
Tartan-clad, the opprobrium heaped on the special artist sums up the disrepute of much royal reportage.
The royal household responded to press intrusion by expanding the role of the court newsman. The post first came into existence late in the reign of George III. Yet it was only during Victoria's reign that the court newsman metamorphosed into an embryonic royal press secretary.
By the late 1850s, his role had grown beyond merely preparing the bland daily report of the court circular. He guaranteed that metropolitan newspapers received an account of exclusive court occasions such as balls and levees. His reports were often reproduced verbatim by the metropolitan daily and weekly press. At the wedding of the princess royal, for example, the court newsman's narrative in the Daily Telegraph took up more column space than the reports from its own correspondents.
In 1864, when the incumbent court newsman retired, The Times noted that his grandfather had been the first to hold the post. Prospective applicants, it seemed, need not apply. But this court sinecure was not to continue when Beard was appointed to the post.
Beard, who held the job until 1884, was a long-time friend of Charles Dickens. They met in the early 1830s when Beard helped the young Dickens gain his first position on the Morning Chronicle . Beard was later best man at Dickens' wedding. The appointment of an experienced journalist rather than a court insider marked a concession to professionalism by the royal household. It was recognition of the media environment in which the monarchy now existed. For his work, Beard was richly rewarded: his salary of £400 a year was well above that received by most of his fellow journalists.
The double-edged relationship between the monarchy and the media was also reflected in the public perception of the court newsman. Satirical journals often derided him for his oversupply of official news. He was mocked as the pet journalist of the court, as its attempt to exploit the populist potential of the media. Yet he was simultaneously cast as a court flunkey who formed a barrier between the monarchy and the press. Like Jenkins, his sycophantic reportage was widely mocked. Unable to provide enough news, yet attacked for supplying too much, the court newsman was always caught between conflicting demands.
The changing role of the court newsman formed part of a broader attempt to keep reporters at arm's length. Newspapers were only reluctantly allowed access to exclusive palace events. Their pleas for admission were not helped by the fact that journalism itself was hardly a profession. Most reporters had a very low social status and were far from being regarded as "Gentlemen of the Press".
Court functionaries were thus unwilling to acknowledge their role in creating an intimate bond between the monarchy and its subjects. At the wedding of the princess royal in January 1857, only about ten journalists were granted official access to St James's Palace. They were seated high up on the left-hand side of the Chapel Royal. Spencer Ponsonby, the Lord Chamberlain's assistant, deliberately chose this position because "it would be more out of the way than any other place in the chapel, for I suppose we could not call upon the reporters to wear full (court) dress". The press could not be excluded; nevertheless it was literally placed at the edge of proceedings. Ponsonby even compensated for the reporters' lack of court dress by having a red silk curtain screen them off from the rest of the attendants. The presence of journalists could be ignored or conveniently overlooked by the aristocratic congregation.
The etiquette of press invisibility established at the princess royal's wedding did not prevent fractious encounters. At Balmoral in the early 1870s, there was often a carriage of journalists ever ready to follow Victoria. Protocol meant that they were nevertheless expected to stay out of sight. On one occasion, one such carriage was pursuing the queen along a drive, only to be caught unawares when her carriage stopped and suddenly turned around. The reporters were forced into a ditch to let Victoria pass.
She reportedly had a hearty laugh at their expense.
The 19th-century popular press established a mode of royal reportage that was already a Pandora's box. Even during Victoria's final illness, when she lay dying at Osborne House, there were numerous disreputable incidents involving the waiting press pack. The Institute of Journalists went so far as to launch an inquiry to discover those responsible. Amid much moralistic huffing and puffing, the reporters concerned were condemned for their lack of gentlemanly conduct. The various outraged commentaries were similar to the opprobrium heaped on Jenkins in the 1840s and 1850s, and prefigure the scorn endured by the paparazzi of the 1980s and 1990s.
It seems that behind the latest tabloid intrusion or court cover-up are the same long-standing contrary desires towards the openness of the British monarchy that once exercised the minds of both Rumsey Forster and Thomas Beard.
John Plunkett is an Arts and Humanities Research Board junior research fellow at Exeter University. His book Queen Victoria : First Media Monarch was published this month by Oxford University Press (£19.99).