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Black Spider

What's the big deal about Prince Charles writing letters to politicians?

Badger culling, Irish gaols and the army’s helicopters – things the heir really cares about.

Prince letters legal challenge PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

THERE HAS BEEN quite the commotion in Britain over the past 24 hours about the publication of a hoard of letters written by Prince Charles to a host of powerful politicians.

In typical understated fashion, the UK media has taken to call the letters the ‘black spider’ memos – named for Charles’ particularly poor brand of handwriting.

The news has failed to create many waves in Ireland, given the insular impact of the event, but there are some interesting nuggets to be digested.

The 27 letters have been the centre of a protracted legal battle between the Guardian newspaper and the government since journalist Rob Evans started digging in 2005. So, 10 years after he first submitted his Freedom of Information request, the Supreme Court ruled that the correspondence must be published.

That historic event happened yesterday, revealing a vast range of issues and topics that the Prince cares enough about to write missives to ministers about. They include:

  • Badger culling (a call for it)
  • Resources for the armed forces
  • Problems with Lynx helicopters in Iraq
  • Problems for workers in the dairy sector
  • Beef farming
  • Historic buildings in Northern Ireland – protecting them from demolition, with a particular attention on Irish gaols
  • Illegal fishing concerns
  • Fate of sea birds
  • Architecture
  • The ‘arm lock’ of supermarkets on farmers
  • Herbal medicines
  • Antarctic huts
  • Teaching methods – and how we should stick to the old-fashioned ways
  • Protecting albatrosses and the Patagonian toothfish

Between 2004 and 2005, the letters were written to the Prime Minister and six government departments.

Many of the letters are quite lengthy - this to the Prime Minister about rural and agricultural issues runs to 17 pages.

The most talked about request to the environment secretary Elliot Morley relates to the albatross and the Patagonian Toothfish. Charles wrote:

I particularly hope that the illegal fishing of the Patagonian Toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross, for which I shall continue to campaign…

On herbal medicines, he wrote:

We briefly mentioned the European Union Directive on Herbal Medicines, which is having such a deleterious effect on the complementary medicine sector in this country by effectively outlawing the use of certain herbal extracts. I think we both agreed this was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

On the British helicopters in Iraq:

The aim of the Ministry of Defence and the Army Air Corps to deploy this equipment globally is, however, being frustrated by the poor performance of the existing Lynx aircraft in high temperatures. Despite this, the procurement of a new aircraft to replace the Lynx is subject to further delays and uncertainty due to the significant pressure on the Defence Budget. I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources.

On badger culling:

I, for one, cannot understand how the ‘badger lobby’ seem to mind not at all about the slaughter of thousands of expensive cattle, and yet object to a managed cull of an over-population of badgers – to me, this is intellectually dishonest.

The Royal family has defended the content of the letters, but has expressed its disappointment that they were not kept confidential. They argue that the Prince should be in a position to lobby for the people he meets. A statement from Clarence House said:

The publication of private letters can only inhibit his ability to express the concerns and suggestions which have been put to him in the course of his travels and meetings.

What does the Guardian have to say about all this after winning the 10-year fight?


Between speaking to graphologists about the few handwritten letters, the Guardian wrote about its struggle to uphold the Freedom of Information Act so the public can get a glimpse of the authority of those in power.

On the letters themselves, an editorial states: ”The letters are both fascinating and a bit tedious.

The papers reveal one big thing that matters. It is no secret that the prince likes to lobby for his causes. That’s why the FOI request was made. What these papers show is the sheer breadth and depth of the lobbying, which stretches from Downing Street to Northern Ireland, via education, health, culture, the environment and defence.

“It goes well beyond architecture and organic farming to school teaching and the performance of airborne surveillance aircraft in Iraq. And the letters themselves are detailed to a fault, telling ministers far more than they need to know about the importance of the Patagonian toothfish, the single farm payment and the recent report of the Local Authority Caterers Association on school meals. This is a letter-writing effort on an industrial scale.”

What do people think?

The release – despite the objections from the monarchy – hasn’t done Prince Charles’s public persona any harm.

For the main part, ordinary folk in Britain don’t seem fussed about either the content of the letters – or the fact that he was corresponding with those in power.

What happens now?

These are actually the last of the letters we’ll see – although there is a presumption there are many more floating around government buildings.

The 27 letters only cover a period in 2004 and 2005 but because of a ruling by government 10 years ago, there is now a watertight exemption to stop the release of any correspondence between public authorities and the monarch or heir.

David Cameron also wants further restrictions to the FOI Act. He wants his ministers to have the power to veto requests in exceptional circumstances. That could be another battle with transparency groups, the Guardian and its journalists.

Bonus content: 

Arguably the most interesting revelation for Irish audiences of the past 24 hours was that Prince Charles’s top media advisor, Kristina Kyriacou, used to represent Cheryl Cole and Gary Barlow.

Probably used to fending off paparazzi and pesky reporters, she dealt with Channel 4′s Michael Crick and his microphone as if they were a piece of loo paper stuck on her sole.

Channel 4 News / YouTube

More: Red-haired ‘fanatic’ plotted to murder Prince Charles to make Prince Harry king

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