What do a future king and queen do in the lead up to Christmas? Drink eggnog out of their favourite gold punch bowl? Make their aides roast chestnuts for them over an open fire?
Spend the afternoon trawling online to find a suitably horsey gift for Princess Anne?
No, they get their kidlets out of the house to keep them entertained and away from riffling through their parents’ Louis XIV drawers to find their presents.
This week, William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and their troop of tiny HRHs were spotted ‘in the wild’ by a surreptitious amateur snapper (ah, the mighty power of the iPhone!) on the Queen’s Sandringham estate at a light-strewn Christmas woodland-walk (which is open to the public).
Only problem: The shots, obtained by the Daily Mail, show the Cambridge clan alongside William’s uncle Prince Edward and his family (wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, and their children Lady Louise and James, Viscount Severn), making them a party of nine people and thus contravening COVID restrictions.
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Per the report, “One astonished member of the public, who snapped the families on their phone, told the Mail they had seen the families ‘mingling’ several times. One of those photographs clearly shows the party of nine, followed by bodyguards, walking in a group together.”
In response, a royal source told the paper: “The two families were given separate consecutive slots to visit the trail just before it opened to the general public. They arrived and departed in their own family groups.
“As anyone with young children will know, there were moments on the 90-minute walk where it was difficult to keep the two family groups apart, particularly at bottlenecks on the trail.”
Of course this is a bad look for the palace, especially given that William himself battled the virus earlier this year. Nor is it the first time he has shown questionable COVID-related judgment. In early March, he joked with a paramedic, saying: “I bet everyone’s like, ‘I’ve got coronavirus, I’m dying,’ and you’re like, ‘No, you’ve just got a cough.’”
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But what makes this situation so fascinating – and telling – is how little of brouhaha this accidental flouting of the rules has caused.
Imagine, just for a second, that it had been Harry and Meghan caught mingling with other family members (or more realistically say the Clooneys, the Beckhams and the Elbas) while enjoying a light-strewn stroll around the Queen’s vast Norfolk estate similarly in breach of COVID restrictions.
The press would erupt, charging every columnist and opinion writer with access to Wi-Fi and ample indignation to excoriate the couple for their flagrant disregard for the rules. Chests would be puffed up and keyboards furiously assaulted in a fit of pique.
“Look!” the conservative-leaning opinion, scribbling hordes would write. “They think there is one rule for them and one for us! HOW DARE THEY!”
There would be spittle-flecked screens the length and breadth of Fleet Street (and the UK) and the whole thing would be messy, protracted and mean.
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While the Cambridges might yet come in for more criticism for this week’s rule breaking, the only minor impact the new images of them have made in terms of controversy and PR noise is striking.
Sure, a palace press flunkey might put out a suitably contrite statement but unless there is some other development here, I guarantee that in 48 hours this royal blunder will be largely forgotten, by and large erased from public memory.
Consider the mess Charles created in the early weeks of the pandemic in March when it was revealed that he (along with wife Camilla Duchess of Cornwall) had left London while he was experiencing mild symptoms of the virus to head to their Scottish pile, Birkhall, only to be tested and found positive once he arrived.
The couple came in for some criticism given they had left the capital on the same day that government guidance was changed asking Londoners to not travel to their second homes and that they had also moved about the country while the future king was exhibiting symptoms.
Again, it was a blunder but one that largely got forgotten in the wash.
And perhaps that is the biggest lesson here: When Harry and Meghan stuff up and make poor choices they are not afforded the same leniency, empathy and collective amnesia as other members of the royal family enjoy.
Instead, when they do exercise less-than-perfect judgment they are hauled over the coals of social media and dragged across the pages of the press to have their mistakes picked over like carrion.
For example, the ever vexatious Frogmore Cottage. In deciding to skip the vast Kensington Palace apartment on offer only to move to the wilds of Windsor to set up home in Gan Gan’s garden thus requiring millions of pounds of Sovereign Grant money to be poured into the necessary renovation, they set off quite the firestorm.
Was it the savviest of moves? Nope, but nor was this use of Grant money a hanging offence. Yet for nearly 18 months that particularly miscalculation hung like a millstone around the royal couple’s necks.
It is telling that only days after their “megawatt” Netflix deal, reported to be worth about $A130 million, was announced in September this year they used their new-found cash injection to repay the money used for Frogmore to free themselves, once and for all, of this particular PR cudgel used to regularly beat them with.
In 2020, we have learnt many, many lessons (always stock up on loo paper; don’t bother to try making sourdough) so here’s another one: To err is human but to receive forgiveness is something only William and Kate get to enjoy.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.