People's Princess? Naff off!

When it comes news mangling the Palace has nothing on the forelock- tugging fourth estate
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A PUZZLING weekend in Royal-land. On Friday, the London Evening Standard's front-page splash read, "Anne Rages Over Diana Charity Challenge". What was the story? It seems that the Princess Royal "reacted angrily" during her East African trip when the BBC's Jennie Bond asked her something. Not only did she "react", but she "almost erupted" at the awful question.

Yes, yes, we said, and what was this question? We didn't find out. The rest of the story was about the ethics of the BBC's decision not to show Princess Anne "reacting" (though not actually "erupting") on the Six O'Clock News.

As reportage goes, it told you nothing. Inside, there was a page of nervy discussion about "Princess Anne's outburst" without saying exactly what she'd not-quite-outburst about. We could infer that someone had compared Anne's charity work to the late Princess of Wales and Ms Bond had passed it on to the toothy horsewoman, thereby incurring her displeasure.

A column by Melanie McDonagh revealed that the Princess Royal had "flipped" over a question about her taking up Aids-victim work like the Princess of Wales, and "complained that she was fed up with being compared with Diana". Now we were getting somewhere. But the strapline read, "Princess Anne is said to have flared up...". Whaddya mean, "is said to"? Did she or didn't she? Was Ms McDonagh there? Had she been privy to an interchange that had been denied the Standard's news desk?

Then news came in that Prince Andrew had sounded off in Malta about Buckingham Palace's 20-year failure to tell the Press the facts of royal stories. "You cannot believe you are being told the truth," he'd told a presumably stunned hack from The Sun, "because over the past 20 years you probably haven't been. It's like the Russians".

But the news on late-night radio was cautiously hedged around with caveats and inverted commas: "It is being claimed that...", "A report from Malta says that the Duke of York...". By Saturday morning, things were muddier. The Times had shifted the Princess-lashes-out sensation into a four-inch confrontation that the BBC had "cut footage" of Princess Anne "reacting angrily" etc, and left it at that. Evidently there was No Story about the Princess herself. The Duke's "outburst" was reported verbatim, along with his assurances that in the new dispensation of royal reporting, "We're trying to make it better." And what had the newly-open Palace to say about his views? It was a "light-hearted exchange" with journalists and, by implication, nothing to be taken seriously.

He didn't mean anything. Andy, eh? What a joker. By lunchtime, the Duke was saying he had intended only to remind the Press to check their stories. That's all. Buck House spin doctors? We must have been misinformed. Here we had two Royal "outbursts", both instantly suppressed - one by the Palace, with the connivance of the media, the other suppressed, or foggily adjusted, by the media itself in a fine display of "coverage" that somehow omitted the central facts of what was being covered.

I don't suppose Princess Anne would relish her remarks about Diana being made public, but they should have been. I don't imagine Prince Andrew's brave pop at the Palace press corps went down well back at HQ but it should have been left alone. The only conclusion you can draw from this puzzling Echoland of royal blurtings is that, when it comes to mangling the news, the Buckingham Palace press office has nothing on the cautious, forelock- tugging British fourth estate.


THESE ARE exciting times for Magnus Mills, the bus driver whose first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, made it onto the Booker shortlist and stands a respectable chance of winning the biggest prize in western fiction on 27 October. I rang Mr Mills to invite him to speak at next week's Cheltenham Festival of Literature (of which I have the honour of being Director) and got his answering machine. Instead of the usual leave-a-message pleasantries, it played a burst of bluesy organ music; it took a moment to identify it as the middle section of "This Wheel's on Fire", the 1968 hit version of Bob Dylan's song by Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity. The chorus goes: "This wheel's on fire / Rolling down the road / Best notify my next of kin / This wheel shall explode".

Cool or what? For a bus driver in the throes of literary fame, there's no more appropriate song. But the business of notifying Mr Mills about his success was apparently fraught with tension. The literary world knew about it at 4pm on 24 September, when Mr Mills was plying the 159 somewhere along Brixton Hill. His family tried to get a message to his cab, but couldn't get through.

Back at the bus depot in Streatham, he still wasn't sure he'd made the shortlist at 7pm, so he went to the TV room to watch the news. His colleagues, however, wanted to watch EastEnders. Mr Mills pleaded that this was, you know, important. Leave it out, they said, so is the burgeoning romance between Phil Mitchell and Louise Simmonds. Strong words were exchanged, but Mr Mills prevailed. It took 40 minutes before the shortlist was announced, to prolonged, if exasperated, applause.

And then Magnus Mills, literary superstar, went back to drive on the evening shift, plying the 159 through the midnight streets, unable to share his triumph with the milling travellers of London SW2. A poignant tale. He'll be onstage at Cheltenham Town Hall on 13 October at 8.45 pm (London timetables permitting) if you'd like to shake his hand.

THE BBC World Service is, as everyone knows, a byword for global enlightenment at times of conflict, a beacon of culture in the murky recesses of totalitarianism, a flagship of Western tolerance and liberal-arts education. Only occasionally has a false note been sounded - as when guest broadcasters, just about to go on-air to lecture on post-war ceramics, were informed by the producer: "Remember, old boy - you're talking to the Africans now..."

How piquant, then, to hear that some things haven't changed. Last week, a friend who works in publishing was rung up by a World Service TV programme called Hard Talk - a half-hour cultural chat-show presented by Tim Sebastian and screened in the middle of the night, presumably for the edification of people with jetlag. Its roster of interviewees is impressive - Nelson Mandela, Arundhati Roy, Robert Duvall...

Anyway, a lady from Hard Talk wanted to check the SP on a certain writer. "This chap, Derek Walcott," she said loftily, "what can you tell me about him that would convince me he's worth having on the show?"

"Well," said the publisher, "he's from St Lucia. He's an excellent poet. And he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago".

"Mmmm," went the voice, unimpressed. "Anything else?"

"Well," said the publisher, casting around for inspiration. "He was involved in a Clinton-style sexual harassment scandal shortly after getting the prize..."

"Mm-hmm," said the lady, still unenthusiastic. "Has he ever had a job?"

"He's Professor of English at Boston University".

"Before that, though. When he was living in the Caribbean. Was he ever, say, a fisherman?"

Like most Caribbean islanders, said the publisher, Mr Walcott would be familiar with the piscine world.

"But he's never really had an interesting job? Basically he's just one of those awful West Indian men, right?"

"There is," my friend persisted, "the business of the Nobel Prize..."

"No, I don't think so," said the Hard Talk lady, consigning the author of Omeros to oblivion. "I don't think he's our sort of thing".

This woman deserves some kind of medal for ignorance. But how did violently- patterned-shirt-wearing ex-jailbird Nelson Mandela get past her pitiless scrutiny?