Monday, 1 December 2014

Hunting for Edward

Some days are just bad days, some stories are just going to hit where it hurts. The publication of pictures in the Sunday Express and Mail on Sunday of the Earl of Wessex pointing a gun while his six year old son stands in front of him is a case in point. It's been picked up by other outlets and is now big news. Having a member of the Royal Family splashed across the media wielding a gun with a child nearby is only going to add up to negatives for the House of Windsor. But there is perhaps a much deeper issue behind it all.

The Earl of Wessex is in the middle of a media row over photos taken while he was out on a shoot with his son

The photo was taken while Prince Edward and Viscount Severn were taking part in a shoot on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk on Saturday. The picture appears to show the earl taking aim at a bird while James is in front of him rather than standing behind him and at the recommended safety distance of ten to fifteen metres. Buckingham Palace has said that the perspective of the photograph is misleading and that at no point during the shoot was James in front of his father.

Gun experts, safety campaigners and countryside experts have all criticised the possibility that a child was in front of someone holding a gun and they have emphasised this should never happen. But there is a bigger question at stake as well. Because whenever hunting or shooting is mentioned, opinion is immediately polarised. It is a sport that many don't like and don't support which leads to a dilemma for the royals.  If many of their fans and followers - as well as those who aren't so supportive - don't get why they are doing something, will the very act of doing it always bring about negative publicity?

The Earl and Countess of Wessex with their children in a photo released to mark Prince Edward's 50th birthday earlier this year

Unfortunately for Prince Edward this will no doubt follow him around for a while. For some it may even become the defining moment of his year. The Earl of Wessex (along with his wife) has put in a huge amount of hard work for the Royal Family this year. Along with the countess, he has been a tireless supporter of charities and has taken on an even bigger role in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme which helps thousands of young people around the world learn valuable skills and contribute to their local communities. But being a royal today is, rightly or wrongly, inextricably linked with public image. And the image in the mind of much of the public now involves the earl and a gun.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex are hard working members of the Royal Family

It's not just our own Royal Family which faces the issue. Just this week the Danish Royal Family took part in its annual hunt. The Prince Consort's Scandi socks diverted some attention but there were lots of questions as well about royals taking part in a sport many don't support.  In Spain, the reputation of King Juan Carlos was seriously hit when he was photographed next to the body of an elephant he had shot during an organised hunt in Botswana. While there were criticisms of the king for taking an expensive holiday while many in his country struggled for work and money, the image of the then monarch next to the spoils of his hunt caused shockwaves.

King Juan Carlos of Spain was widely criticised for a hunting trip in 2012

It's not even the first hunting row for our own royals in 2014. Earlier this year, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry were criticised for heading off on a hunting holiday in Spain. The fact that news of the break emerged just as William was about to make a major speech for his United for Wildlife campaign caused an image issue. It blew over but it diverted attention from a major moment in the duke's royal career.
Hunting is controversial, there is no doubt about that. Attempts to change the laws on fox hunting caused massive protests on both sides. Any manmade interference with Mother Nature causes anger on all sides - take the recent government plans to introduce a badger cull in parts of England. As a result there were demonstrations and furious rows. When it comes to animals, passions run high.

The stellar popularity of William and Harry took a battering when they were seen hunting

Which means that even if this photo of Edward didn't appear to show James in front of his father it would most likely have still caused controversy because it involved hunting. It is a royal pasttime that goes back millenia but while we might happily absorb it as a backdrop in regal history, in the 21st century it is a permanent row waiting to happen. Some days are just bad days, some stories are just going to hit where it hurts. And when it comes to hunting, whatever way the photo is taken, there will be criticism. It's a royal dilemma with no obvious answer and one that we most likely we will hear about again.

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