Simon McCoy: My years as a royal correspondent
- Credit: John MacIntyre/Wikimedia/Creative Commons
In his position as Sky’s first royal correspondent, Simon McCoy had a privileged insight into an era-defining period in the lives of the royal family
Nailsworth Festival: May 21-28
Simon McCoy is a journalist whose career to date has encompassed a raft of primetime roles: from BBC news presenting, to covering the Iraq war in Kuwait and Basra, and hosting GB News shows. He also worked as Sky’s first royal correspondent, from 1991-96, a period of unlooked-for drama and game-changing turbulence for the monarchy. With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee taking place next month, Cotswold Life asked him about his experiences reporting on those era-defining royal events.
Simon lives in the Cotswolds with his wife, the actress, writer and Cotswold Life columnist Emma Samms.
Simon, the role of royal correspondent underwent a sea-change during your tenure…
When I started, everyone said, ‘Oh, how lovely!’ Because all you seemed to do was travel around the world with the Queen, seeing wonderful places. Within a year, the marriages of Andrew and Charles were on the rocks. Suddenly, you were doing the story everybody was talking about. We [at Sky] were the first 24-hour news network. To have one person covering such a huge beat was professionally very rewarding, but it took a toll on my private life and on spending time at home.
When did you realise rumours about royal troubles contained more than a kernel of truth?
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I remember having lunch with the Queen’s then-press secretary at a very nice London restaurant. It was just before the Andrew Morton book [Diana: Her True Story] came out. I’d heard rumours about what was in it – ridiculous things, like Diana throwing herself downstairs and attempting suicide. Halfway through lunch, the press secretary said, ‘So what have you heard?’ I told him, and the look on his face was one of grim resignation. I suddenly realised: My word! It’s all true.
Did press relations with the royals change after that?
The whole relationship. Up until then, television was there to provide pretty pictures and nice images. Now, if you covered a story, you were rocking the royal boat. In my view, the problems really began with the Queen conflating the monarchy and the royal family – a fatal error. When the royals opened the doors to the cameras and you saw them barbecuing as a family, it was thought of as a way of modernising the monarchy. The trouble was, they were no more and no less flawed than any other family. I always felt the most important word should have been ‘mystique’.
You weren’t in front of the cameras when Diana died?
No – I got the call at 5 in the morning to go in and put together a documentary for Sky One that evening. We did it – but we had this moment where the programme was on air and we were still editing the second half. I spent the whole day in an edit suite, unaware of what was going on outside.
But I was presenting outside the Abbey on the day of the funeral and it hit me then. Halfway through the commentary, I burst into tears. There were people in the crowd who were very angry with all of us in the press: they blamed the paparazzi for chasing Diana through the tunnel. But, as I started crying, suddenly people were passing me handkerchiefs, which made it worse.
Should we envy the royals their glamour?
The only thing I was ever jealous of was that they never spent any time in traffic! They always look glamorous, and everybody meeting them looks glamorous; but they do work hard, as you can see from the recent William and Kate [Caribbean] tour. They’ve had, I think, an unfairly bad press. Any errors [on that tour] were not theirs but made by their communication team, who need to have a hard think about what they’re trying to achieve.
Do you have a favourite royal?
I’ve always held Charles in esteem. Whilst the public turned against him over the whole Diana affair, it was very uncomfortable for anybody who was married or who knew about relationships to watch what was going on, because they were human beings. Anything Charles has ever expressed a view on – which, at the time, was ridiculed (whether talking to trees or worrying about the climate) – he’s been proved completely right. He’s a genuinely warm and funny man. When he laughs and smiles, the whole room laughs and smiles with him.
What do you think the Platinum Jubilee should do for the country?
These events are often preceded with pessimism and cynicism. Then, on the day – and I use these words advisedly – it is unalloyed joy. The Queen is the only one who can focus the nation like that. When the monarchy is operating as it should, it is the best shop-window we have. The Queen is everything that is good about this country. Actually, so is Charles, but we won’t see that until he is King.
Simon McCoy will be talking about his career in journalism – including his time as Sky’s royal correspondent; his reporting on the Iraq war; and as presenter of BBC News at One – as part of Nailsworth Festival (May 21-28, 2022): nailsworthfestival.org.uk