Prince Harry a breath of fresh air? No, a chip off the old block | Catherine Bennett

His offensive gaffe on Today about Meghan Markle’s family revealed he has much in common with his father

Given the lavish, generally positive coverage of Prince Harry’s guest editorship of Today, the BBC’s new head of news could surely be forgiven for extending the scheme to many more flagship shows. Assuming, that is, the royal internships are not reserved for family members no more than fifth or sixth in line to the throne.

If not, with the breadth of available talent, there is no reason to delay Princess Beatrice’s guest editorship of In Our Time or for You and Yours to put off showcasing Princess Michael of Kent’s many passions with a topical phone-in. “Has an innocently racist piece of vintage jewellery ever landed you in trouble? If so, you’re not alone!”

On television, trained BBC employees should console themselves, when Princess Charlotte is brought in over their heads at Daily Politics, that some of their print colleagues have for months been deferring to the Standard’s guest editor George Osborne, an amateur lacking even a compensatory wardrobe of adorable smocked dresses.

Whatever the career options for his extended family, Prince Harry’s Today contribution appears triumphantly to have consolidated his claim to the irregularly bestowed royal title “a breath of fresh air”. Meanwhile, a dynasty long scared into shyness by the still-suppressed 1969 documentary, Royal Family, then by Charles’s subsequent artlessness with a Dimbleby, has learned that the national broadcaster can, with careful guidance, be reduced to a docile, reverential mess.

Perhaps, whatever Walter Bagehot said of attempts to clarify Queen Victoria’s activities, some daylight can usefully be let in “upon magic”. Maybe David Attenborough was similarly overprotective when, after Royal Family showed the Queen having breakfast, he reportedly told the director: “The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”

True, Today only got as far as the fifth/sixth in line to the mystical Windsor hut, but the response to Harry’s boyish bants – “boxers or briefs?” – his optimism, his air of totally sharing the anxieties of the younger generation, indicates, so far, undiminished esteem for an obviously compassionate royal who acts, kind of, normal. That Harry has reportedly had to overcome palace opposition in order to speak freely on mental health, and to defend his fiance, has only added, to judge by the Today treatment, to his princely authority.

Harry interviews Barack Obama in Toronto.
Harry interviews Barack Obama in Toronto. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

Further burnished by his exchange with an obliging President Obama, Harry may now have accomplished the yet more staggering feat, on behalf of Princes Charles, Andrew and Edward, plus any number of royal twerps and dependants with still flimsier claims to state support, of making the whole institution look, however unfeasibly, enlightened – a project that can only benefit from his marriage to Meghan Markle, a critic of Trump. As with the couple’s demonstrativeness when they announced their engagement, and their promise of some kind of team work, the BBC guest editorship, even as reviewed by usually egalitarian sources, introduces a saviour of the monarchy upon whom republicans can respectably dote.

There has been nothing like it since 1976, when Prince Charles, allegedly dashing, and newly retired from the navy, defied hostile older courtiers to establish his Prince’s Trust. For this, the prince, as hard as this might now be to believe, has also been feted as a friend to the forgotten. Catherine Mayer, Charles’s biographer, quotes Jon Snow, who was summoned, as a young charity worker, to the palace and told by the prince: “I’ve brought you here because I want to do something with my life. I want to start something which will make a difference.” The trust would give small grants to young people between 15 and 25 who might be, among other things, “alienated or rejected”.

That the Prince’s Trust has, admirably and as intended, now helped getting on for 900,000 young people, has not, as Charles’s Today appearance possibly reminded listeners, noticeably endeared its creator to the nation. Maybe, even minus his crippling self-pity and strangulated delivery, his love of private trains and fatal weakness for Camilla Parker-Bowles, Charles’s early clarity of purpose, about who and how he wanted to help, would always have been obscured by rival preoccupations. The trust has been overshadowed by his urge to interfere in politics, to slag off doctors and architects and to provide, in some less definable, though reliably nonsensical, way, de haut en bas spiritual instruction.

Even offered the chance, on Today, to say something clear about pollution, Charles – “Father, Pa”, as Harry addressed him – embarked, in a style that made me feel, for the first time, for his duchess, on a homily concerning Nature.

“The future lies in working in far greater harmony with nature,” he told his spellbound younger son, “and trying to ensure more successfully that our own economy better mimics and mirrors nature’s brilliant economy.”

Whether filial regard or lack of time explains the oversight, Prince Harry did not press Pa for details, an approach that might in, in any case, have struck a disagreeable note in a programme evidently modelled, in interrogative terms, on Pathé newsreels of the mid-20th century. Although, even then, you wonder if a presenter would have concluded an interview with the head of the Metropolitan police with: “Prince Harry, our guest editor, asked me particularly to tell you that he wants to thank you for all the work that you do and that all your officers do, particularly at this time of year.” Her box of Quality Street and a card could be picked up on Commissioner Dick’s way out.

In the closest the prince himself came to being interviewed, he parried humble inquiries about Ms Markle’s induction programme, one already advanced to the level of inexplicable hats and demure curtseys. How was her Christmas with the Windsors? His answer was possibly the most illuminating of the programme, though not necessarily in a good way for believers in Meghan’s potential – with Harry – to make a difference. “No, look, she’s done an absolutely amazing job,” he said. “She’s getting in there and it’s the family I suppose that she’s never had.”

If it did not replicate Charles’s words to Camilla (“your greatest achievement is to love me”), Harry’s bizarre inversion of the truth – that a notoriously tortured family with purely hereditary claims to eminence has yet to demonstrate why anyone as impressive as Ms Markle should submit to its weirder rituals – is the first sign, in some years, that his fans may, reluctantly, have to manage expectations. Was it, in that case, even a good idea to let in daylight upon Harry? Much, if not all his appeal, for the Windsorphobic has resided in vague hopes that he is, more Diana than Charles, a winningly audacious misfit.

Like Prince Harry’s laudable, but strictly – in his family – conventional focus on the environment and African wildlife, on youth causes and on the military, his perception of his partner’s good fortune may indicate the opposite. Affinities with Pa could go way beyond a shared reverence for nature’s brilliant economy.

Contributor

Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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