Should footage of young Elizabeth's 'Nazi salute' have been released?

Privacy and the royal family
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Story highlights

  • The British monarchy has been grappling with the privacy issues for years, writes CNN's Max Foster
  • A tabloid recently published images apparently showing Queen Elizabeth II giving a Nazi salute when she was a child
  • At test is the transparency of this ancient institution, says Foster

(CNN)The private lives of public people are always going to be interesting to outsiders but where should the line be drawn on access? Especially when you're a publicly funded pillar of the constitution.

The debate is as old as the media, and it's something the British monarchy has been grappling with more than a thousand years.
The latest flare-up emerged over the weekend when The Sun published images from a video apparently showing Queen Elizabeth II giving a Nazi salute as she played with her family.
    It was 1933 and she was a six or seven-year-old princess. Adolf Hitler had only just risen to power in Germany. The Sunday Express questioned whether it was a Nazi salute at all with its headline: "Queen Was Just Waving."
    Nobody is questioning the authenticity of the video but should it have been released? The Queen owns the copyright but The Sun defended its publication on grounds of public interest.
    "These images have lain hidden for 82 years. We publish them today, knowing they do not reflect badly on our Queen, her late sister or mother in any way," the paper declared in an editorial. "They do, however, provide a fascinating insight into the warped prejudices of Edward VIII and his friends in that bleak, paranoid, tumultuous decade."
    Edward is described by The Sun as "Nazi-sympathising." He met Hitler in Germany in 1937, a year after he abdicated the throne, passing it on to Elizabeth's father as King George VI.
    The Sun won't reveal how it obtained the footage but Buckingham Palace has launched an investigation.
    One line of inquiry is that the footage was inadvertently released by the Royal Archives to a documentary crew at some point. The archives are housed under lock and key in an ancient tower at Windsor Castle.
    Access is highly restricted but is granted on a case-by-case basis. I was allowed in, for example, to see Queen Victoria's letters. The question is whether the archives should be opened up completely, skeletons and all.
    British historian Kate Maltby told CNN: "The royal family have always been very secretive about their archives and there is an ongoing controversy over just how early King Edward VIII (as he would later become) became a Nazi sympathizer, and whether other members of the royal family -- the Queen Mother for example is shown in the footage -- tolerated that.
    "Now of course, until the royal family permits serious scrutiny of their archives, it will be left for places like The Sun to leak images without us being able to contextualize them properly," Maltby says. "But it's really important that we start asking questions."
    The Royal Archives have been open to authors and researchers with Her Majesty's permission over many years. Several projects are under way, I am told, which are aimed at increasing public access. Victoria's diaries are now being digitized, for example. The Queen has also allowed access to "private family film footage" for key documentaries, not least during the Diamond Jubilee year.
    The British monarch is head of state and the public legitimately have an interest in how she and her heirs live their lives, but the family also retain a right to some level of privacy. As such, the line has to be drawn somewhere and when it is tested, so too is the transparency of this ancient institution.