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Very public battle over private letters from Prince Charles to government agencies

Getty Images file / 2012 Indigo

A professor says of Prince Charles: "If he led an idle life we would criticize him; when he takes an interest we slap his wrist and say he can't go there."

LONDON - It may come as no surprise that researchers conducting a survey over a four-week period found that the Duchess of Cambridge was featured on the front pages of British newspapers more frequently than anyone else, and her husband, Prince William, came fifth.

It's fair to say Britons' see a lot of the royals in their papers - but what do they know about what the monarch and her heirs think of the country's affairs? The answer is very little. The queen is obliged to remain politically neutral and has no political authority - and keeps her views to herself.

Which is why a rare opportunity to learn about Prince Charles's thoughts on topical issues has generated so much interest; there were calls for the release under the Freedom of Information Act of 27 letters written by the Prince of Wales to seven government departments between September 2004 and April 2005. But this has been scuppered by the government - the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, using a veto to overrule a court decision and keep the letters secret.

Tantalizingly, Grieve said the letters revealed the prince's "most deeply held personal views and beliefs" and were "particularly frank." But he suggested they could lead to Prince Charles being seen to disagree with government policy and so be favoring one political party over another - which clearly he wanted to avoid.

Grieve added: "Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch, because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king."

Certainly in the past Charles has not been coy about expressing fairly conservative views on issues close to his heart, such as architecture, or farming and the environment. But it seems pretty clear the content of these letters went further.  

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Rob Evans, a journalist writing for The Guardian newspaper who made the initial request for the letters to be released, told NBC News the letters should be seen, because people have a right to know how much influence the Prince of Wales has.

"Prince Charles is known to lobby government on a wide range of issues, but he's unelected and there has been a lot of concern about how he influences government behind the scenes... the public ought to know how much effect he is having on government policy," Evans said.

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The original court ruling (now overturned by Grieve) in similar vein concluded: "Those who seek to influence government policy must understand that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what they have been doing and what government has been doing in response."

Evans says he will now take the matter to the high court to try to overturn the government's veto.

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Public opinion is divided. Commentator David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times, "The clever silliness of Mr Grieve's letter says... that you the subject/citizen really don't want to know if your next king or queen's a bit of an idiot because you're getting them anyway."

But Professor Robert Hazell of University College London suggests this protection is useful - even necessary - for the Prince of Wales, as there is no obvious or established path for him to follow to keep abreast with national affairs, and prepare for his future role as king.

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He told NBC News: "We do ask a lot of Prince Charles ... he's meant to be interesting and worthy. If he led an idle life we would criticize him; when he takes an interest we slap his wrist and say he can't go there."

"We're entitled to know his public pronouncements, not his private thoughts - same as anyone else" tweeted Parliamentarian, MP Tom Harris, in favor of the letters being kept secret.

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The issue also raises questions about Charles's role in general - how DOES he occupy himself as he waits to ascend to the throne (it's been a 61-year wait so far)and how does he prepare for the “job” he will eventually hold?

It's a role Professor Hazell describes as "a blank space."

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Last month Britons got an unexpected and revealing glimpse of the queen's personal thoughts when a BBC journalist divulged the details of a private conversation in which she admitted she had lobbied government ministers over the radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza. The BBC swiftly apologized for this breach of confidence, and Buckingham Palace said it would never comment on private conversations involving any member of the royal family. This was an extremely unusual episode.

As for Prince Charles’s letters, the decision to keep their contents secret only has the effect of increasing speculation about what they contain and hunger to find out. It will now be up to the High Court to judge if the public will get a chance to see their contents. 

Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images

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