A crown prince has duties as well as privileges
Of course, crown prince Willem-Alexander has a right to privacy. But to demand that the freedom of the press should be suspended when it comes to his family is worrisome coming from a future king.
Two weeks ago, in a personal letter to the court, Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander complained about the presence of photographers during vacations in Italy as a child. "Sailing on my grandfather's yacht was never fun for us. You never knew if you were being spied on through a telephoto lens."
The letter, which clearly came from the future king's heart, made a compelling appeal to compassion: doesn't everyone have the right to live a normal life?
Yet, in the same letter, Willem-Alexander admitted that it was his privilege to grow up "in an environment which closely resembled that of other children". Indeed, of all the successors to the Dutch crown Willem-Alexander is the one who has enjoyed the most freedom as a child. He went to a 'normal' school, had a 'normal' college life with 'normal' friends, and he was allowed to do all the things that 'normal' people his age did.
Everything was so normal that one would almost forget that Willem-Alexander was a member of a special family, with special privileges. Normal children do not live in a palace, have lackeys or are tutored by renowned university professors. They do not get to fly over the country in their very own plane. So it seems that 'normal' applied mostly to the princes' duties, not to his privileges.
Willem-Alexander has always hated the constraints of being a member of the royal family. That is a very different attitude from his grandmother Juliana's who, at her inauguration, said: "Who am I to be allowed to do this?" Although her own youth was much more restricted than Willem-Alexander's, Juliana clearly saw her position as heiress to the crown as a privilege.
For generations educators at the Dutch royal family have struggled with the question what is the right pedagogic approach for a crown prince or princess. Obviously a prince or princess has to be groomed for his or her future public function, but they also need to be allowed to develop as an individual. In the past, and despite the parents' best intentions, the former has always had the upper hand. In the lives of the three 19th-century kings, and those of queens Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix in the 20th century, public duties prevailed over private interest in the end.
Although they enjoyed many privileges, the lives of Willem-Alexander's predecessors were all characterised by personal sacrifice. Willem-Alexander is the first for whom the balance is tipping the other way. And so far he has always made it clear that as far as he's concerned his private interests come first. When asked in a TV interview in 1997 what he would do if he was made to choose between a woman or the throne, he said he would choose the woman.
Willem-Alexander's priorities are a logical consequence of his youth. True to the times Willem-Alexander's upbringing focused on his self-development. His parents wanted their child to grow up as freely as possible. His father, prince Claus, who suffered greatly from the restraints and the public duties that came with his wife queen Beatrix's position, always taught his son to be his own man.
Willem-Alexander didn't need to be told twice. When a camera started clicking during a 1976 visit to Delfzijl the 11-year-old crown prince pointed to his forehead and told the press: "You're all crazy." The same year, at a photo-op during a visit to Ireland, he famously told the Dutch press to "bugger off". At such a young age the difference with previous generations was already obvious.
In 1983, following confrontations with his parents - presumably with his mother - Willem-Alexander was sent to the Atlantic College, an international school based at a beautiful old castle by the seaside in Wales. The Atlantic College strives to teach its pupils social awareness and a sense of duty. But its pedagogic tactics focus on individual development. Founder Kurth Hahn didn't believe in slavishly following the rules; he thought children needed to find out for themselves what was necessary or useful for them. That suited Willem-Alexander just fine.
His military service, by contrast, was a cold shower. He openly criticised the regime at the navy, which he said was "artificially harsh". In turn, the prince's 'unroyal-like' behaviour was increasingly being criticised as well. When, during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Willem-Alexander stormed onto the field to help the Dutch women's hockey team celebrate their victory, his parents decided it was time to teach their son about the seriousness of his future task.
In the late nineties he was assigned a personal secretary, Jaap Leeuwenburg, who drew up a training programme during which Willem-Alexander found a speciality in 'water management' and was familiarised with the constitutional duties of his future office. But even now it seems that Willem-Alexander has not quite gotten the message.
Whenever a sacrifice is asked on his part he puts his foot down. When he wanted to become a member of the International Olympic Committee, which at the time was at the centre of a fraud scandal. When it turned out that his future father-in-law, Jorge Zorreguieta, was a member of the dictatorial regime of general Jorge Videla (1976-1983), he was scornful about the public debate that followed. "Who am I to be put through all this?" he seemed to wonder.
That didn't keep him from fully enjoying the benefits of his hereditary function. Together with his Argentinian wife Máxima he has thrown himself at the glamour, the adventure, the exotic travel and the international party scene that come with being royalty .
Yet when an AP photographer immortalised the family during their ski vacation in Argentina this summer, and newspapers in the Netherlands published the pictures, Willem-Alexander went to court.
By suing the international press agency, Willem-Alexander in fact tried to export the 'media code' that the royal family imposed on the Dutch media, asking them to take pictures only when they appear in an official function. It was a case of imperial overstretch that is unworthy of a small constitutional monarchy, and the judge did not allow it: he only ruled that AP can no longer distribute the four pictures at hand.
During the court case, Willem-Alexander was represented by the Land's Advocate, the highest legal council to the Dutch state. Yet when the prince's letter was read out loud in the courthouse, it lacked any kind of reference to his public function. Wilhelmina, Juliana or Beatrix never enjoyed their royal privileges with such abandon as Willem-Alexander. Yet when it comes to the disadvantages Willem-Alexander has a shorter fuse than any of them.
'Vacationing at home'
Of course the crown prince has a right to privacy just like any other public figure. And the courts will continue to grant him that right. But to demand that the freedom of the press is suspended when it comes to his family is worrisome. It shows a disturbing lack of understanding of the stringent and serving role which he will be expected to play as king in a modern and democratic society.
Privacy laws are a complex structure in which the different factors have to carefully weighed. By imposing the media code on the press Willem-Alexander has in effect torn down this structure. A crown prince has a constitutional function that can only benefit from checks and balances. He will also need the media - and especially the photographers - if he is going to have the support of the people. The Dutch royals have been using photography as a means to do that for a long time. But overly rehearsed photo-ops defeat their own purpose.
Willem-Alexander and Máxima own houses in Bariloche in Argentina and soon in Mozambique. They spend a big part of the year outside the Netherlands. This year's official summer photo-op nevertheless took place at a Dutch beach nevertheless. But by the time the pictures were published - 'Vacationing at home' was the headline in a royalty magazine - they were already on the ski slopes in Argentina. In this context, the holiday snapshots from the beach seem quite unreal.
Not all vacation snapshots are permissible invasions of privacy. But that is something that a judge will have to determine case by case. If Willem-Alexander is going to be a convincing king, he also needs to be seen as willing to sacrifice his private interests in the interest of the state when necessary. Máxima did so at her wedding, by agreeing not to have her father present at the marriage, and she earned a place in the hearts of many Dutch people with it. We have yet to see a similar gesture on the part of Willem-Alexander.
In his court case against the Associated Press, Willem-Alexander could only lose. If the judge had ruled against him, it would have been an unmajestic defeat in the face of the very state he is meant to rule over.
His winning the case is a Pyrrhic victory. As Willem-Alexander approaches kingdom, discontent over a crown prince who sees his duties as a burden, but loudly claims his rights, will only grow. And the media pressure will increase rather then decrease.