The Prince of Wales has taken the highly unusual step of suing The Mail on Sunday over the publication of extracts from his private journals.
It is standard procedure for members of the royal family to rein back from legal action for fear of courting extra publicity. But the revelations, including allegations that Prince Charles described Chinese diplomats as "appalling old waxworks", were considered so embarrassing that Clarence House has decided to seek redress in the courts.
The Mail on Sunday denied that it had breached confidentiality and said the Prince's actions raised "serious issues about the freedom of the press". It argued that the public had a right to know the views of the heir to the throne.
The newspaper obtained a copy of extracts from one of Prince Charles' journals which contained his views on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Legal papers were served on Associated Newspapers, the publisher of The Mail on Sunday yesterday.
In a statement, Clarence House said: "The Prince of Wales has reluctantly decided to take legal action against Associated Newspapers following the publication of extracts from his private journals in The Mail on Sunday. The Prince of Wales' Office has been advised by its lawyers that The MoS has breached both the Prince of Wales' copyright and confidentiality."
Sir Michael Peat, principal private secretary to the Prince of Wales, said: "This is a matter of principle. Like anybody else, The Prince of Wales is entitled to write a private journal without extracts being published. This journal was copied and passed to The Mail on Sunday without permission.
"We made this clear to The Mail on Sunday on five occasions, both orally and in writing. Nevertheless, The Mail on Sunday proceeded to publish these extracts despite the knowledge that it was in breach of The Prince of Wales' copyright."
In the journal, entitled "The Handover of Hong Kong, or The Great Chinese Takeaway", Prince Charles described a ceremony attended by the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin. He referred to the display as an "awful Soviet-style" performance, with "goose-stepping" soldiers carrying out a "ridiculous rigmarole".
Prince Charles wrote: "After my speech, the President detached himself from the group of appalling old waxworks who accompanied him and took his place at the lectern. He then gave a kind of 'propaganda' speech which was loudly cheered by the party faithful at the suitable moment."
Prince Charles praised Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, for ensuring democratic safeguards during the handover. He criticised the transitional government for "kow-towing" to the Chinese.
The media lawyer Mark Stephens, said: "It's virtually unprecedented [for a royal to take legal action]. If they can avoid doing it, they will, but obviously in this case, there's so much hot stuff in the diaries with his own personal views which perhaps may be not couched in the usual diplomatic language, they feel this is damage limitation."
The spokesman for The Mail on Sunday said: "This was not a private journal. It was widely distributed and viewed, as Clarence House confirmed to us, as a historic document intended for eventual publication. The story raised important questions about Britain's relations with China and the Prince's influence on British political thinking."
The Prince has only initiated legal proceedings once before, when he obtained a High Court injunction banning the publication of a book by his former housekeeper.
Prince Charles's former aide Michael Fawcett obtained an injunction against The Mail on Sunday two years ago, preventing the newspaper from publishing allegations which concerned his employer. The Guardian overturned a second injunction preventing the media from naming Mr Fawcett as the royal servant in the case.
Last year, Adam Helliker was sacked as editor of The Mail on Sunday's diary for selling the private address book of Diana, Princess of Wales to a dealer in the United States.
When royalty goes to court
THE PRINCE OF WALES
Prince Charles obtained a High Court injunction against his former housekeeper Wendy Berry to stop her publishing a book on the Royal Household anywhere in the world. She left the UK and published abroad anyway. In 1995, the Prince took the Today editor Richard Stott to court for using extracts. He was fined £75,000.
DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES
In 1993, Diana sued over pictures of her exercising in a leotard in a private gym. The photographs had been taken with a hidden camera. The case was settled days before it came to court as the Palace did not want Diana to take the witness stand. The gym's New Zealand-born owner, Bryce Taylor, was forced to return the £300,000 he had made from selling the pictures, and the Daily Mirror had to pay legal costs of £700,000.
Her Majesty sued The Sun and won damages in 1993 after the newspaper published her Christmas Day message in advance. Copies of the speech had been made available to the press under embargo. When The Sun decided to publish a sneak look at the text, the Queen used the law of copyright to express her displeasure.