A dirty war

Hell hath no fury like a tabloid scorned. And those that failed to buy Burrell have gone to town on him, says David Aaronovitch
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The Independent Online

Five years after the flowers comes the shit. Empty champagne bottles, used condoms and newspapers litter the lawns in front of Kensington Palace; soiled toilet paper and injunctions are tied to the gates. It is hard to recall such a dispiriting moment in British public life in the past 20 years.

Five years after the flowers comes the shit. Empty champagne bottles, used condoms and newspapers litter the lawns in front of Kensington Palace; soiled toilet paper and injunctions are tied to the gates. It is hard to recall such a dispiriting moment in British public life in the past 20 years.

It's true that, as this newspaper argued yesterday, a modern monarchy that managed without a vast retinue of obsequious flunkeys would probably be a better monarchy, and might attract less criticism. But who on earth, whatever their virtues, could survive an ordure hurricane such as this? Any allegation about royalty or its hangers-on (no matter how far-fetched, or procured for however vast a sum), can be printed in a daily newspaper, repeated on the broadcast media and become the launch pad for the next allegation. We are suffering from a psychosis every bit as weird as that we experienced when Diana died, but this one is wholly negative. How they must be laughing at us in Europe and the States!

When this is all over, the great Burrell-mania of 2002 will be analysed and taught in media-studies courses for a generation. The professors will take their students through the Andrew Morton book, the Jonathan Dimbleby book, the divorce, the death of Diana and in particular the way the media lost the popular pulse, through the compensatory feather-bedding of the princes, the jubilee and, finally, the Burrell trial. They will relate that, after the extraordinary collapse of that trial, a bidding war began for Burrell's story.

Readers know that I do not think much of the Daily Mail. A lot of its editorial is bullying, sometimes racist and often hypocritical. None of which would matter if politicians and TV and radio programmes would just take no notice of it. But while they do, I think it's worth recording just how much the Mail stinks – and the Burrell episode is a pretty appalling example.

Mail readers may recall that, as Mr Burrell's trial came to its premature conclusion, he was described by their newspaper as "a man of integrity". It is reported that the Mail then offered Burrell half a million quid, rising later to £600,000, for his story. However, the Mail was keen that the former butler should really dish the dirt, and not hold back and spoil the value of the exclusive. It was while they were pressing him for such details that the Daily Mirror came through the middle and bought the story for less money, but with the agreement that it should be told in Burrell's own words.

The Mail and the News International titles (which apparently bid £1m between them) then went bonkers. The "man of integrity" who had refused to sell his story to the Mail was accused of being a traitor to the Royal Family and – treason of all treasons – of having upset Prince William. He was now fair game himself. What Mail readers made of Burrell's transformation from rock to lizard, I cannot imagine. How the Mail moral thunderers like Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips can sleep easy is beyond me.

Over at the News of the World, where the butler might so easily have been their hero, he became the object of every vituperation the paper could invent. He was scheming, underhand, self-important, back-stabbing, a rat, a weak man, smug, self-satisfied, a rampant homosexual, and a total sham. The nadir came when the News of the Screws carried a claim by Michael Barrymore that Burrell had tried to seduce him with the princess scarcely cold in her coffin.

But even all that has not been enough. In the absence of their own exclusives, there has been something of a royal-scandal frenzy. Ancient allegations have been given fresh legs, and some brand new ones have been added just for jolly.

The biggest has been about Prince Charles, George Smith and the unreported gay rape. According to Mr Smith (who named himself in this week's Mail on Sunday), he was anally raped by another royal servant in 1989. He then told Prince C, who did not tell the police. A tape of Mr Smith's discussion with Diana was supposedly in the Burrell box, and it was to prevent Burrell from revealing the cover-up that the Queen was (so the theory goes) eventually persuaded to agree that she had met Burrell, causing the collapse of the prosecution.

Now, it may be possible, as Mr Smith claims, to be anally raped while asleep – though an unlubricated entry into your virgin back passage is the kind of thing you would wake up for, I'd have thought, even if you had overdone the Bollinger. Nevertheless, in The Spectator (edited, you will recall, by a Conservative MP for a seat bordering Windsor), the Mail journalist Simon Heffer – though hedging his piece with weasel formulations about some people thinking X, or is it too far-fetched to conjecture Y – came close to making an accusation: that a "gay mafia" around Prince Charles, centring on his (gay) press spokesman, Mark Bolland, had deliberately sought to protect the gay rapist in their midst from the allegations. Mr Smith, in his interview with The Mail on Sunday, opined that the prince would not have wanted the cover-up exposed in the Old Bailey.

However, as was made clear by the accused man's solicitors on Sunday, the rape allegation was fully aired in The Mail on Sunday last year when Mr Smith took it to the police, who decided not to proceed. Their decision may have been influenced by reports that Mr Smith was an alcoholic who had been voluntarily sectioned several times under the Mental Health Act. That of itself doesn't mean he wasn't raped, but it surely casts doubt over the allegations. But the facts don't seem to matter any more. The Queen's tears at a Remembrance service are conscripted to whatever cause the journalists like, and we are told that the monarchy is in trouble.

The Daily Telegraph yesterday blamed Prince Charles and his media minders. Recent stories traceable to his office were, said the paper, "that the Queen should abdicate, that Prince Harry has been taking drugs, that the Earl and Countess of Wessex are being greedy, that Prince and Princess Michael of Kent should give up their flat in Kensington Palace...". And so on.

Others do not blame the royals. In the same paper, the veteran journalist WF Deedes ended his column: "Politicians may be out of touch with what people want, but newspapers are not. So what you see on our pages mirrors public tastes and reveals far more about them than about the Queen or the Prince of Wales." All true. And what crack-dealer could not say the same thing?