The Media Column: 'The Mail on Sunday was at first frightened of naming Charles'

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The Independent Online

It was a hard sell, a little cheeky perhaps, but one difficult to walk past at the newsagent. After a week of nudges and half-whispers from everyone else on Fleet Street, The Mail on Sunday, the paper that kick-started the whole debate about the Prince of Wales's "scandal", promised on its front page: "Charles and his valet: the true story".

Well, not quite, of course. No newspaper in England or Wales was blatantly going to flout the injunction banning publication of the details of the story (Scotland is a different story, as we now know). Editors are a strange breed, but in some ways they are like you or me. Given the choice between a table for two at Wilton's and a table for 30 at Pentonville, they tend to prefer the former. They are fully aware that they can, in theory, at least, be sent to prison for contempt of court.

So, instead, The Mail on Sunday ran a carefully worded but curiously engaging piece based on the not-so-surprising fact that their original source, George Smith, former assistant valet at Kensington Palace, sticks by his story - of the rape he says he suffered at the hands of a palace servant, and of the unrelated "shocking incident he witnessed" involving the Prince and another man.

Legal anoraks reading the article will have noticed that the name of one of the main protagonists, a name that has been sprayed all over the other papers this week in connection with the story (and appeared in later pages of the MoS), was entirely absent from the piece. That was on the advice of the paper's lawyers.

The anoraks will also have spotted that the MoS did not feature the claim, carried in the News of the World, by Prince Charles's former press adviser Mark Bolland that he was once telephoned by the Prince's private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, and asked: "Do you think Charles is bisexual?" Journalists at The Mail on Sunday had the story - but their lawyers prevented them from publishing that, too.

Even with such gaps, the paper is likely to have sold well, backed by a last-minute ad campaign on Saturday night. The Mail on Sunday printed an extra 200,000 copies in the expectation that Smith's re-entry into the story would shift papers. And by the way, don't believe the £500,000 figure you have been seeing everywhere as the cost of the scoop. My understanding is that The Mail on Sunday paid Smith less than a fifth of that sum - although even that is a lot of money for a man who a few years ago was being paid a dismal £9,000 a year by the royal employer who expects such loyalty from his staff.

The strangest aspect of this whole affair is this: when the paper was first intending to run its original story, nine days ago, before the injunction was imposed, it was planning to carry full details of the allegations but without identifying the alleged protagonists. The Mail on Sunday knew it could not defend itself from a claim for libel if the names went in. It does not have any corroborative evidence for Smith's claim. He alleges that he witnessed something shocking; the two men he claims were involved say it never happened.

So, the injunction served on the paper by the Prince of Wales's former aide Michael Fawcett a little more than a week ago may well have brought more attention to a story that would have been largely passed over by other papers, given the vagueness that would have been forced on it by The Mail on Sunday's lawyers. I'll bet you weren't talking about Fawcett in the pub 10 days ago.

Is Smith telling the truth? Even at The Mail on Sunday they do not know for sure - how could they? But recent developments have shifted executives at the paper farther and farther toward Smith's versions of events. They believe that the reactions of senior people at Clarence House indicate doubts there about the Prince's denials. Why, they ask, the initial panic when The Mail on Sunday put the story to the Prince's people? Why did Michael Peat feel the need to check out the nature of Charles's sexuality with Mark Bolland?

We will never know. But Clarence House's initial defence was blown out of the water a decade ago by Andrew Morton. The author of Diana: Her True Story originally took his version of events to Sir David English, the great Daily Mail editor. English passed up the opportunity to grab for himself the biggest royal scoop for generations, which eventually went to The Sunday Times. His reasoning? Morton's allegations were so outlandish that they could not possibly be true.