Does Princess Diana have a right to privacy?

UK royals talk candidly about losing Diana
UK royals talk candidly about losing Diana

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Story highlights

  • A new documentary will air tapes that reveal a Princess Diana unhappy with her royal family life
  • Kate Maltby: Have the immediate "needs" of historians been given precedence over those of Diana's descendants?

Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

London (CNN)Here in Britain, hardly a day has gone by this summer without a royal row. The 31st of August, a month from now, will mark the 20th anniversary of the premature death of Diana, Princess of Wales. For weeks already, the British broadcasters have scheduled extra programming, trailing tell-all documentaries, while Diana's sons, William and Harry, have organized carefully choreographed events and interviews designed to burnish their mother's memory as a humanitarian.

Kate Maltby
Even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, once mistress of Diana's husband, Charles, and now his second wife, has approved a series of soft-focus interviews and a semi-official biography, generating tabloid headlines like "Her Side of the Story" and "Wouldn't Wish It on My Enemy." The Camilla of this narrative was menaced by a vindictive and unstable Princess Diana, enduring every bit as a much tabloid harassment.
That Diana, who presumably was her worst enemy, suffered at least as much and largely at Camilla's hands, seems forgotten. But in royal exclusives, timing is never a coincidence. Indeed, it looks suspiciously like Camilla's new PR campaign is damage-control for a year in which Princes William and Harry have been determined to remind the British public why we loved Diana.
    This week's controversy revolves around a series of tapes made in the mid-'90s by Princess Diana's speech coach, a man named Peter Settelen. Ostensibly created so Diana could hear her own vocal patterns played back to her and improve her public speaking, the tapes also captured the princess speaking frankly -- and angrily -- about both her relationship with her husband and Camilla.
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    Some of the tapes' more explosive revelations -- which include Diana complaining about the Queen's lack of support -- have already been aired in the United States. But the British press, always more deferential to royal sensitivities, has not aired them. That will change on August 6, when the left-leaning broadcaster Channel 4 screens them in a new documentary, "Diana: In Her Own Words."
    Many of the princess' friends are furious. So are Charles and Camilla's staff, who fear the tapes will revive memories of their adultery. The aristocrat Rosa Monckton, a long-term custodian of Diana's legacy, has written a complaint to Channel 4, calling the program "a betrayal of her privacy and of the family's privacy." Earl Spencer, Diana's high-profile brother, known best for his speech at her funeral, has also attempted to have the tapes suppressed.
    Ever since their existence has been known, conservative figures have argued that airing private discussions about the royal couple's divorce would cause psychological anguish to Diana's sons, an argument that succeeded in causing a similar documentary to be canceled 10 years ago, despite a cost of £100,000, according to The Guardian.
    The most significant difference between then and now is that Princes William and Harry are older and, supposedly, less vulnerable. They have pointedly refused to comment on the release of the tapes, rather than get drawn into a tussle, but this month broke with precedent to talk about their private experience of their mother's love. Defenders of the documentary say this means the princes have effectively sanctioned open discussion of their mother's faults and virtues. Critics don't buy it.
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    Should the Diana tapes be aired in public? That largely depends on whether you think the dead have a right to privacy. And whether that changes when those dead have living loved ones. The British royals guard their recent history fiercely; the establishment blew its top when family photographs from the 1930s surfaced in 2015 showing a 6-year-old future Queen Elizabeth being taught to joke around with a Nazi salute.
    But even families with less obligation to the public -- and less privilege to compensate -- endure scrutiny of their private lives. Caroline Kennedy lives with daily public discussion of her father's adultery; with less compensatory privilege, so do the children of Martin Luther King Jr.
    Everyone agrees there will one day be a public need for historians to critique the royal family's tenure during the '90s. But when does the balance shift enough between the needs of historians and the needs of Diana's flesh-and-blood descendants? In 2017? 2027? 2097?
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    Part of the problem of almost-contemporary history, of course, is that its narratives still have political uses for the players involved. The British government attempts a balance by publishing its own state papers 30 years after the events they cover. (If we applied this basis to the Diana tapes, they'd be due for publication 10 years from now.)
    The British public has a right to know what a royal princess alleged against her husband and his family. It may be, however, that holding off another few years would mean that when these tapes are released, it is as a series of historical documents and less of a ready tool for royal factions that still each have an ax to grind.