Hounds of British Press Pack Are Full of Bark and Bite

The chattering classes, ladders in hand (not for social climbing, but to get a better view), scramble after Charles and Camilla in Washington.
The chattering classes, ladders in hand (not for social climbing, but to get a better view), scramble after Charles and Camilla in Washington. (Rich Lipski/twp)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005

We'll try to resist the easy stereotype of British reporters, all that rubbish about what a pack of rambunctious, foul-mouthed, partisan, aggressive and all-around cheeky rogues and rascals they are. That's the sort of caricature that has stuck to the British press like a barnacle for decades, and an objective American reporter shouldn't stand for it.

Okay, we held out for one paragraph.

The 50-strong pack of British journalists following Prince Charles and new wife Camilla around Washington yesterday certainly seemed like a respectable lot, but that was only if you didn't get too close.

"This room is a disgrace!" thundered Arthur Edwards, an esteemed photographer for the tabloid newspaper the Sun, as he stepped inside the crowded White House pressroom for the first time yesterday morning. "I can't believe this is how you accommodate the media. It's a disgrace!" (He did have a point. It is rather . . . cozy.)

A few moments earlier, Edwards was discoursing about how unfair some of his country's media coverage has been to the royals, how inaccurate and biased the reporting can be, when a colleague broke in. "Oh, he just loves them," she teased playfully.

"Oh, [bleep] off, Jude!" Edwards spat back, not at all playfully. "Or we'll have a row right here!"

It should be noted that this was before the day of official events had even begun. It should also be noted that Edwards is no hotheaded kid. He's the de facto leader of the British press pack, a man whose work is so respected that he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

But then no one gets far in the British media world by being mousy. It's a hyper-competitive system, with nine national daily newspapers all scratching and clawing for stories, for readers, for an angle . It's especially brutal out there on the royals beat, where so much is stage-managed by handlers that any fresh detail -- a hand movement, a gesture, a wee comment -- can form a world-beating "exclusive."

So British reporters, while quite delightful off duty, can be rather tough in the trenches. Often physically so. The shoving and elbowing and cursing on the camera platform -- most of the British press were male -- as Charles and Camilla arrived at the White House yesterday was as rough as anything at a hockey game. When the royal couple, along with first lady Laura Bush, visited a charter school in Southeast Washington, the British reporters surged forward in their wake, almost threatening to overrun a cordon of burly Secret Service agents guarding the entry.

Like all reporters, they grumble a lot, too -- about deadlines, about their lack of access, about the dull color of the dress (a sort of purple) that Camilla wore to a White House luncheon and about the lack of any identifiable news. "Freddy Fact has not yet popped his head out of his burrow," said Alan Hamilton, the Times of London correspondent, midway through yesterday's carefully orchestrated events.

Indeed, there's no mistaking a certain ennui among the British press about this royal visit. The fact is, said Hamilton, Camilla just doesn't have the beauty and star power of the late Princess Diana, who visited Washington with Charles in 1985. "It was glitz and glamour then," he said wistfully. "We had the famous dance with Diana and John Travolta at the White House. This tour is much more worthy" -- Charles is promoting various personal causes -- "and, you could say, much duller."

And that's the charitable version. After the prince and his royal consort lunched with President and Mrs. Bush at the White House yesterday, Francis Dias, an independent British news photographer, pronounced the event a meeting of "four wrinklies."

The prince doesn't appear to have many nice things to say about the British press. Charles was caught on an open microphone earlier this year referring to the press pack as "bloody people." Of a BBC reporter, Nicholas Witchell, he was heard to say, "I can't bear that man."

Yesterday reporters were kept at a respectable distance from the royals. The one interaction occurred as Charles was leaving the charter school. Asked what he thought of the place by a British reporter shouting from the pack, Charles turned briefly and replied, "Very impressive."

And that was that.

Not all of the British press has been tough on Charles and Camilla -- "She's become much more accepted in the last year," says Hamilton -- but many media organs did trash the royal visit before it began. There was much clucking in the media about the size of Camilla's entourage, including hairdressers and a makeup artist; about the number of dresses she took with her (reportedly 50, for eight days); and about the cost to British taxpayers for the whole thing (reportedly about $445,000).

The commentary was even more brutal. The Sun, one of the nation's largest papers, ran a cartoon of Camilla dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, standing on a pedestal, and saying to Charles, "Well? You're looking for ideas to win them over." Standing off to the side are aides carrying bags marked "Hair," "Makeup," "Costume," "Lighting." The Scottish Daily Record offered the backhanded assessment that "Camilla Parker Bowles will never be Diana. That is not necessarily a bad thing. She is a decent, compassionate person and not the scheming witch she is often portrayed as."

Of course the American press has its moments, too. Yesterday's New York Post, describing Tuesday's New York leg of the trip, called Camilla "Frump Tower."

Cheeky, that. In fact, almost British.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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