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Royal Spin

Princess Diana with a disabled child during her visit to Angola.
AFP Photo

Angola, Diana and child
By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 14, 1997; Page A23

LONDON, Feb. 13 — The biggest story about Queen Elizabeth II recently has been the government's decision -- with her blessing -- to spend $100 million on a new royal yacht. It went over badly with the public, say the polls, as people already are fed up with the cost of the monarchy.

The biggest story about Princess Diana, meanwhile, was her recent trip to Angola, where she put on bluejeans -- albeit one pair bearing an Armani label -- and comforted small children maimed by land mines, while she spoke out forcefully in favor of banning the weapons. The press ate it up, with the BBC airing a special documentary on her journey.

The highest-profile coverage during recent months of Prince Charles -- Diana's ex-husband, heir to the British throne -- focused on his trip to Klosters, a fancy Swiss ski resort. About the same time, Diana made the front pages with the news that she would allow part of her designer wardrobe to be auctioned off, for the benefit of AIDS and cancer research. The clothes should fetch seven figures.

If the last few months serve as any guide, the public relations contest between Diana and the rest of Britain's royals will be no contest at all: Since her divorce from Charles last August, Diana has achieved rapid success at portraying herself as a woman who, above all, cares about others, as opposed to her former in-laws' image -- fair or unfair -- of caring about little more than themselves.

She is fast becoming a kind of alternative monarchy, which was just what the House of Windsor reportedly feared.

This is not a thought-out strategy, according to some who know her. She is said not to plan strategically. But she knows exactly what she's doing and what kind of impact she's having, these sources say. It is, said one, "the edge of a strategy."

Diana seems to manage her own public relations these days -- with a little help from her friends. Reportedly because of her mercurial ways, she has lost two aides, including Jane Atkinson, a respected public relations professional.

The princess -- she was forced to give up the title "Her Royal Highness" after the divorce but remains a bona fide princess -- was in the news Wednesday for withdrawing her support from a charity fund-raising event because of its publicity literature, which juxtaposed photos of the royal family with shots of semi-naked models. She did not, she said, want to "cause offense to the royal family."

The sad fact for Charles is that while he too helps charities and takes on good causes, he simply seems unable to command the attention she does. He and his parents, the queen and Prince Philip, were groomed for a largely vanished age of the monarchy. Diana was groomed for the age of the modern media. In that respect, it is not a fair match. Moreover, she plays, by design or by instinct, to their weaknesses.

And at the moment, "she is winning," said Nigel Evans, editor of London magazine and former editor of Majesty, a glossy devoted entirely to the royals.

The queen is interested in expensive dogs and horses, Philip in hunting and yachts, and Charles in architecture and business enterprise. Fairly or unfairly, they are rarely portrayed showing an interest in individuals.

In a recent MORI public opinion poll, only 21 percent of those polled said they believe the royal family is "concerned about people in real need," and only 10 percent thought them "in touch with ordinary people." Meanwhile, 62 percent said the description "privileged" fit the House of Windsor. Does Britain get good value from the money it spends on the Royal Family, the poll asked. Fifty-two percent said no, 39 percent said yes, and 9 percent didn't know.

In effect, Diana is benefiting from the perceived shortcomings and extravagances of the crown, notwithstanding the fact that she still wears wildly expensive designer gowns for evening engagements. It did not hurt either that her Angola trip was paid for by its Red Cross sponsors.

Diana has been doing better in the image department than that other famous ex-royal -- Sarah Ferguson, former wife of the queen's second son, Prince Andrew. The news about "Fergie" has been exclusively about her frantic efforts to pay off her astronomical debts -- she has confessed to being a reformed shopaholic. She has sold her name, her book, her weight problem and her presence. She recently was pictured at a gala ball in Vienna, her attendance purchased for $40,000 by a wealthy opera patron.

While Fergie was giving televised tours of her lavish home, Diana was lending her name to a charity for the homeless. "If an Englishman's home is his castle," she said, "then what happens to the Englishman when he has no home?"

Diana's interviews suggest she is quite aware of the contrast she is underscoring as she appears with the underprivileged, the dispossessed and the afflicted. "I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts," she said in 1995. "Someone's got to go out there and love people and show it" -- the implication being that none of the rest of the royals was prepared to do so.

That interview -- in which she, like Charles before her, confessed to adultery -- was a mixed performance. Polls at the time suggested that people who had previously heaped most of the blame for the marital breakup on Charles were coming to feel that she too bore considerable responsibility.

Yet in the January 1996 MORI poll, she came out well compared with Fergie and Charles when asked which member of the royal family "has done the most damage" to its reputation. Those surveyed ranked Fergie first (40 percent), Charles second (34 percent), and Diana third (11 percent.)

That was before the news of the Princess Di dress auction, before the flap over replacing the royal yacht Britannia, before Angola -- which produced more discussion and publicity about land mines than Britain has ever experienced.

It also produced a telling conflict with some in the government, since her position in favor of a total ban on land mines deviated from official policy, which favors limits but not a complete ban. A junior defense minister, speaking to the press without allowing his name to be used, called her a "loose cannon."

Prime Minister John Major, a keen observer of public opinion, figured out quickly that the loose cannon was not Diana but the minister who chose to take her on. He quickly repudiated the man, saying he found no problem with anything she had said.

"It backfired on the government," Evans said, and "reflected badly on the British establishment." Indeed, he said, it contributed to the already existing "feeling that she's taking on the British establishment and beating it at its own game. . . . She's what people would like the monarchy to be."

The House of Windsor once knew something about image-making: The royals adopted the Windsor name around the time of World War I, borrowing it from famed Windsor Castle near London because they thought their real name -- the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha -- sounded too Germanic to rally the fighting spirit of the British troops.

Recently, though, the family seems to have lost the touch. In December, for example, when Parliament was considering a strict gun-control bill spurred by last year's slayings of 16 children and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, Prince Philip was less than delicate in speaking out against the measure:

"If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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