Royal secrecy surveyed
As part of our special report Index sent a survey to 28 historians and journalists who work with archives related to the Royal Family. We received 10 responses. The majority wanted to remain anonymous – interesting in and of itself.
17 Jan 23

Eight out of 10 respondents said they had been unable to conduct their work researching the royal family without conflict, difficulty or compromise beyond that encountered in other areas of their research. One believed it has become worse. They said: “As a journalist visiting the National Archives I have noticed that in recent years almost all government files relating to royalty have been withheld long beyond what would have been the previous 30 year limit. Increasing deference?”

In answer to the question “Have you ever tried to access information that should be publicly available related to the royal family (including their close friends and associates) but is not” only one answered no. Please note this person was also happy to be named – the historian Andrew Roberts – and was keen to highlight he has never had a bad experience researching the royals, a fact that should go on the record here.

In contrast to Roberts’ positive experience, another historian had a glut of negative ones, ranging from “false statements made by government departments and other public authorities and retention of files by government departments under blanket ‘Lord Chancellor instruments’ for decades (abusing a proviso in the Public Records Act) instead of transferring them to the National Archives” to the “chaotic state of the Metropolitan Police’s archives, including ‘missing’ files” and “the ‘sealing’ of royal wills”.

Six told us they had looked for material in the archive related to the royal family and found it had been removed. Needless to say they all found that suspicious. On this one comment is worth noting: ‘I was told when working at the Lambeth Palace Library Archives that some sources held by the library relating to the Royal Family for the 1940s and 1950s were simply not available for researchers to consult, as per the request of the Royal Archives. Whilst engaged with the BBC Written Archives, their policy on royal material was also updated (as per a request of the royal liaison) which meant that any previously unseen BBC files relating to royalty had to be vetted and sensitive information removed before it could be presented to researchers.”

Given the prevalence of SLAPPs in the UK – strategic lawsuits against public participation – we were curious about whether there were any members of the royal family that people would not write about negatively for fear of legal or reputational repercussions. The answer here was mixed. Three said yes but the rest said no.

All except two believed that access to the Royal Archives should be covered by freedom of information legislation. Most comments for yes were similar to this: “Because the monarchy is a public institution. I believe the Royal Archives’ current opt out of FoI requests is based on the royal family being a ‘private’ family. This has clearly not been the case for more than 150 years: the monarchy is a public institution of state. And, as an institution of state, the monarchy needs to be accountable.”

Interestingly five said the Keeper of the Queen’s (now King’s) Archive does not act in a transparent way in terms of granting access to the Royal Archives. One provided more context: “They seem to operate according to a pre-determined list of documents that are regarded as off-limits – even to the point of going to court to ensure that Prince Philip’s will should be embargoed for 90 years.”

Finally, the real crunch question – we asked whether anyone had ever wanted to publish something on the Royal Family and not been able to. This was a 50-50 split.