Queen Elizabeth II 'Plays the Long Game' Reputationally—Podcast

Queen Elizabeth II "plays the long game" when it comes to her reputation, chief royal correspondent Jack Royston has told royal commentator Kristen Meinzer in a new episode of Newsweek's The Royal Report podcast.

In a discussion centered around the pros and cons of the royal family's unofficial "never complain, never explain" motto, Royston notes that, "At its core, 'never complain, never explain' is about trying to present the monarchy as though they are above the trivial debates that take place in the media about their lives."

"There is a feeling that if you respond with an official comment then that elevates the status of the accusations against the royal family member and makes them stick in people's minds."

The motto has its attribution not with a member of the royal family but with former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who served two terms under Queen Victoria in the 19th century. It is believed that Disraeli coined the motto after reading Benjamin Jowett's "Maxims for a Statesman" which include the lines "never explain," "never fret," "never quarrel" and "never tell."

Queen Elizabeth II Windsor Castle Engagement
Queen Elizabeth II "plays the long game" when it comes to her reputation according to chief royal correspondent Jack Royston on Newsweek's "The Royal Report" podcast. The queen is shown at Windsor Castle in England on March 23, 2022. Steve Parsons/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The saying has been associated with members of the royal family since the early 20th century and has become part of the discourse surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, as well as Prince William and Kate Middleton, as they engage with the modern media.

"Those in the anti-Sussex camp regularly accuse the couple of both complaining and explaining ad nauseam" Meinzer said to Royston as she asked whether the motto still has a valid place in 2022.

"With 'never complain, never explain' you can't—in the modern world—do it all the time," Royston responded.

"There is definitely a place for it," he continued, but "all of the royal family members have at some point departed from it. One of the really high profile examples is what was termed at the time the 'War of the Waleses,' which was when Charles and Diana's marriage was disintegrating."

Both Princess Diana and Prince Charles abandoned the "never complain, never explain" motto during the 1990s as they used television interviews and authorized biographies to present their sides of the story on their failing marriage. These mediums have also been used by Harry and Meghan to correct stories about them in the form of cooperation with the biography Finding Freedom and the 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Although the queen has very rarely issued corrections to the press, she has not adopted the reactionary and defensive stance that others in her family have.

According to Royston, "Harry's perspective on all of this is that you have to take a moral stand on it and the queen, to me, feels like she tends to view these things predominantly from a reputational perspective and the queen plays the long game. What she is interested in is her reputation over time."

"Sometimes I think she plays the long game wrong" Meinzer responded to Royston, "that was especially true when Princess Diana died in that paparazzi car chase and the queen and the family they stayed in Scotland in the immediate aftermath of that, and the world wanted to know 'when is the queen going to address this tragedy, when is she going to speak up about it'... and it went on for days."

"Knowing the good and the bad of complaining and explaining, what do you think the royal family should be doing moving forward?" she asked Royston.

"I think that they do have to be very careful about getting drawn into an argument because it can definitely elevate the status of some quite trivial stories," he said. "But really this is about assessing how powerful and impactful the allegations against them are."

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Giving Harry and Meghan's interview with Winfrey as an example, Royston notes that "there was no way that [the royals] could just ignore that, but also it was very important not to get drawn into a very toxic and negative argument with Meghan and Harry across the Atlantic—throwing out counter-allegations or trying to challenge the factual basis of the interview.

"If the royal family had been dragged into that it would have been reputationally toxic for them."

There is another side to the coin, however, as Royston noted, "On the other hand, the narrative can slip out of your control and you have to do something to regain that control.

"We saw William and Kate lose control of the narrative of the Caribbean tour very recently and again it was very important that they didn't get defensive about it or resentful about the allegations that were being made about them but I think William tried to respond in a sideways fashion."

"So there is this kind of middle ground where they cannot directly respond to the negative stories about them but address the issue more generally without direct reference to the criticism."

Royston and Meinzer ended their discussion in agreement that the way forward for the royals in regards to the "never complain, never explain" motto is to blend the approach with a more open and transparent model which allows for more controlled engagement with the press and public. This seems to be the attitude of princes William and Harry as they move away from the queen's traditional form of public engagement.