Media: The Neil Report: The Prince, the press and privacy laws

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The Independent Culture
Yet another royal scandal involving infidelity, paranoia and selective spin-doctoring by so-called "friends" - the all-too-familiar ingredients that have become sadly synonymous with Britain's most famously dysfunctional family - has provoked yet more demands from the usual suspects that the media be gagged from telling such tales. With boring predictability, Roger Gale MP leads the politicians' lynch mob, calling, within hours of The Mail on Sunday hitting the streets - with its serialisation of Penny Junor's new book Charles: Victim or Villain? - for the media to be cribbed and confined with new privacy laws.

Though Mr Gale is a former broadcaster, like so many MPs with little past and no future he hates the press with a vengeance, perhaps because as an obscure Tory backbencher he realises that he is now of less importance than the humblest Fleet Street hack.

Prince Charles's camp echoes Mr Gale's outrage, managing to have it both ways by demanding that the press cease and desist from such unsavoury revelations, while being privately delighted that Ms Junor has socked it to Diana.

The BBC unwittingly strengthens the hand of those who would censor, by uncritically reporting the claims of the Prince, his mistress and his allies that Ms Junor got no help from them. It is at times like these, reminiscent of the demands for press censorship that surrounded the rows over publication of Spycatcher and Andrew Morton's royal expose, that you realise how paper-thin is the commitment to freedom of the press among so many significant parts of our society. Whenever something is published that powerful people want to keep secret, the instinctive cry goes up that newspapers should be banned from making such revelations. You begin to wonder if we will ever grow up into a mature, free society.

Those who want to strangle royal revelations at birth are even prepared to resort to using the two young princes, William and Harry, as an air- raid shelter. They justify their demands for censorship by saying that nothing must be published which hurts the sensitivities of these two youngsters. Supposedly wise and compassionate heads nod in agreement. But I find it bizarre that the limits of a free society should be set by the need to keep two teenagers in the dark about their parents.

Despite the many privileges that go with their position, and the public's natural desire to know something about the formative years of their future king and his brother, the princes do have a right not to be subjected to needless and unjustifiable intrusion. Whether that should cover the fact that Harry recently scored two goals in a football match or that he now sports a skinhead haircut, as St James's Palace seems to think, is another matter.

The Palace needs to distinguish between the harmless and trivial and the downright intrusive in reporting what the princes get up to. What the Royal Family and its many allies in the Establishment must not be allowed to do is to use the princes to bury any embarrassing reporting about the recent behaviour of the monarchy. Teenagers are, anyway, more resilient than most adults give them credit for.

Even if they are not, their private needs cannot be used to justify a return to Thirties-style gags on royal reporting, when a conspiracy of silence among the media kept the British people in the dark about their future king's desire to marry an American divorcee. Remember that, next time some Establishment type sheds crocodile tears about the need to protect William and Harry, when what they are really after is a return to an age when their sort controlled what the rest of us read or saw.

The BBC's royal reporting is in danger of playing into their hands. Sometimes dear old Auntie cannot decide whether it is an independent news agency or an arm of Buck House. When its then royal correspondent, Jennie Bond, finished a rather hostile interview with me on the eve of the serialisation of Mr Morton's book in The Sunday Times, she was adamant that she had seen Charles and Diana the week before, and was in no doubt that their marriage was fine.

Nicholas Witchell now does the royal beat for the Beeb, and he is a rather more formidable journalist than Ms Bond. Yet on Monday morning he was outside Buckingham Palace assuring a concerned nation that there was no reason to doubt the joint claim of Charles and Camilla that they had nothing to do with Ms Junor's hatchet job on Diana. Maybe. But journalists need to be as sceptical in dealing with royalty as they should be when reporting Downing Street briefings from Alastair Campbell.

We have it on the record from Prince Andrew, after all, that in the recent past the monarchy has lied to its subjects with a skill and frequency which would have shamed the Kremlin's spin doctors during the Soviet era. Any comprehensive report on the Charles-Camilla statement should have pointed out that it said nothing about authorising their friends to speak to Ms Junor, and raised the possibility of their turning a blind eye when their supporters did speak up for them.

That is what happened in the aftermath of the Morton serialisation. I was being criticised for giving only Diana's side of the story, so I commissioned a major feature to give Charles his say. At first none of his associates would speak. Then they came back saying they would help, on condition that they were not quoted. A long piece was published entitled "The Case for Charles", based on briefings from Constantine, the ex-King of Greece, Lord Romford and several other of Charles's cronies. There is a good chance that similar types briefed Ms Junor for her book. She is something of a propagandist for the Prince and Charles's camp would have known she would be sympathetic. His friends and supporters have long been furious that the popular perception of the marriage breakdown is dominated by the version of events given in the Morton book. They wanted to set the record straight, as they saw it, especially since their previous attempt (the Jonathan Dimbleby book) was rather overshadowed by Charles's confession of adultery.

The Prince's camp may have overplayed its hand and done Charles more damage than good, which is why nobody is owning up being a Junor source. But it is healthy that a counterweight to the Morton version of events has been published. Those of us brought up on John Stuart Mill believe that is how an approximation of truth is reached in a liberal society.

But journalists should be on their guard. We are in the midst of a massive pro-Charles offensive. Ann Leslie in the Daily Mail, Graham Turner in The Daily Telegraph, now Penny Junor in The Mail on Sunday have all penned powerful tributes to Charles - even though the Mail stable was previously in the Diana camp. Some powerful people in our society have decided that this is what we should now think, to their advantage if not necessarily to ours.

Diana is dead! Long live the future King! At times like these, independent- minded journalism is needed more than ever - and the demands of those who would control it, for whatever reason, need to be comprehensively dismissed.