The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prince Charles, the toothfish and the toothless ‘black spider’ letters

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, meets residents of the Guinness Partnership’s 250th affordable home in Poundbury on May 8 in Dorchester, Dorset. (Ben A. Pruchnie/WPA pool photo via Getty Images)

The name was as sinister as they come, the “black spider” letters. And there was no doubt that their author, Prince Charles, along with the government of Britain, was engaged, quite openly in a cover-up. A cover-up of more than a decade and of great expense — after all, they had fought their release under Britain’s Freedom of Information law. Surely they had something to hide.

With equal tenacity, the Guardian, one of Britain’s more aggressive investigative newspapers, its U.S. version having shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (with The Washington Post) for NSA spying revelations, fought in the courts for a decade to have them released, ultimately winning.

So the world had every right to expect a scandal, perhaps one that would shake the monarchy to its foundations.

Indeed, its outlines were already beginning to be tantalizingly apparent: the heir to the throne, who’s supposed to steer clear of politics, twisting the arms of ministers of the government in secret letters from 2004 to 2005 — perhaps for his friends, perhaps for his own special interests, or possibly, even worse, as part of a plan to upset hundreds of years of British history by reasserting the powers of the monarchy in anticipation of becoming king.

The Guardian, which is anti-monarchy, had revealed in November that Charles was “ready to reshape the monarch’s role when he becomes king and make ‘heartfelt interventions’ in national life …”

Wednesday, following the Guardian’s victory in court, the ‘black spider” letters, all 27 of them, were made public, as The Post’s Karla Adam reported.

[Memos put spotlight on Prince Charles’s political outreach]

But, as reporters pored over them, it quickly became apparent that the biggest news was Charles’s effort on behalf of herbal extracts and the Patagonian Toothfish, otherwise known in restaurants as Chilean Sea Bass, a threatened species.

And the Prince of Wales, far from being heavy handed, seemed more of a supplicant in his dealings with ministers.

“I must say,” Charles wrote to the then-environment minister, Elliot Morley, ” … I particularly hope the illegal fishing of the Patagonian Toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross….”

More seriously, he also wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair suggesting that British troops in Iraq were at risk because they lacked “necessary resources,” a criticism Blair acknowledged was valid.

The biggest casualty of the release was the name, “black spider memos,” a reference to Charles’s “scrawly” handwriting. Most of the letters were typed, not scrawled.

[Read the secret letters Prince Charles didn’t want you to see]

The Guardian’s headline — “‘Black spider memos’ show lobbying at the highest political level” — suggested that the newspaper still saw a scandal.

But few others did.

“Shock horror? Far from it,” wrote Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail.  “These so-called ‘black spider memos’ are generally about as controversial as back copies of the Beano.” (The Beano is a British children’s comic book.)

Quoted in The Mirror, the best the Labor Party’s Paul Flynn could muster by way of outrage was: “Charles has proved himself an unsuitable, incurable meddler …. Some of these views are eccentric.”

Even the Guardian’s columnist Simon Jenkins described the letters as “so anodyne as to suggest a Private Eye spoof. We have his various views on hill farms, bovine TB, military helicopters, herbal medicine, Smithfield market, Antarctic huts and the fate of the albatross. They hardly come as much surprise; indeed most were publicised at the time.

“All received a polite ministerial brushoff. The government spent a quarter of million to avert our eyes from this – but of the promised upmarket Russell Brand there is no sign.”

What the letters proved, Jenkins wrote, was that the powerless prince was indeed powerless.

“The black spiders are harmless creatures compared with the multimillion-pound tarantulas of big-time political pressure, uncharted and undisclosed. … The Guardian has shown the Prince of Wales to be a small fry in this ocean. What about the sharks?”

To the Guardian, it was all a matter of principle, and transparency. “A corner of a large constitutional curtain was lifted on Wednesday,” it declared in an editorial.

Yet, it conceded, the letters show that  behind that curtain, “most of the time, Prince Charles behaves more as a bit of a bore on behalf of his good causes than as any sort of wannabe feudal tyrant.”