Diana inquest: How The Rock found himself in a hard place

He was the hub of Diana's wheel. Everyone else was on a spoke. But at the inquest last week it all fell apart. David Randall on the day the secrets ran out

Given the extent to which Paul Burrell has benefited financially from the Princess of Wales's death, it's surprising that Mohamed al-Fayed hasn't fingered him, rather than Prince Philip, as the evil mastermind behind the Paris crash.

A little over 10 years ago, as a butler, he was paid £18,000 a year. Today, as an ex-butler, he is worth an estimated £5.5m, having turned his proximity to Diana into not so much a career as a conglomerate. Through it and its various arms, he sells memories, books, advice, china, wine, teapots, chairs, dressers, and even wrought-iron bedsteads. Most of all, he sells – by implication, if nothing else – the knowledge of royal secrets as yet unspoken. And it was, as keeper of these, that he took the witness stand last week at the princess's inquest. The trouble for him was that, by the time the assembled barristers had finished with him, it was not her beans that were spilled, but his. He left the witness box shaken, like his mistress before him, by the hostility of the British Establishment, and, like her, feeling misunderstood. Time, then, in the spirit pioneered by Andrew Morton, to tell "Paul Burrell: His True Story".

It reads, as hers did once, like a fairytale: the little boy born in a humble Derbyshire cottage who rose to hobnob with, or, at the very least serve HobNobs to, the crowned heads of Europe. First footman to the Queen, then butler to the Princess of Wales, in August 1997 it all came to a calamitous stop. He was made chief fundraiser for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, was fired, paid off, and with this money, and the £50,000 Diana left him, he and his wife bought a house in Cheshire, and opened a shop, Paul Burrell Flowers and Gifts. It didn't go well. In 2001 came worse: he was arrested and charged with stealing some of Diana's possessions. His trial began, and then, in the nick of time the Queen recalled that, yes, now you come to mention it, I think he did tell me he was looking after some of her things.

Free but poor, he began to sell the only valuable asset he had: what he knew of Diana. First to the Daily Mirror (£300,000, 2002), then in a book (A Royal Duty, 2003), then another (The Way We Were: Remembering Diana, 2006). They made him millions, and soon there were lectures, reality television series, guest appearances – and a five-bedroom, triple-garage, swimming-pooled home in Clermont, Florida, next door to his manager Chuck Webb and his partner, Ron Ruff. Chuck manages Paul's website where can be found not only his New Year Message, but also tributes from those he has inspired – and merchandising. There's the Royal Manner Furniture Collection, the Rug Collection, the China Collection (teapots at $31.95), and the Royal Butler Wine Collection (from Australia, $10 a bottle). And all managed through Paul Burrell Ltd, Black Dragon Management Ltd and, no doubt, other enterprises. But then, as Paul would say, that's for him to know and us to find out.

He says that kind of thing rather a lot. One of his books ends with the line, referring to a secret of Diana's, "That's between the butler and the princess". And so, Paul has built his business with such nods and winks, and plenty of chutzpah. From the youngish man standing respectfully behind Diana in many a press picture in the old days, he has become, in his own mind at least, The Man Who Knows Everything. "I was at the hub of the wheel and everyone else was on a spoke. I connected all the princess's friends and all her world. It all came to the centre and to me," he would tell the hearing, adding later: "I knew the princess well. I could predict what her next move would be. I would know what she would do next... I was that close to her."

So, as he took the stand on Monday, he was a tempting target. Not only was he the pompous Self-Appointed Keeper of Her Highness's H'insights, and the disloyal blabbermouth who had once signed a confidentiality clause, he was also, to a certain snobbish turn of mind, the counter-jumping cove who should have stayed below stairs. And to Michael Mansfield QC, eloquent mouthpiece for the al-Fayed cause, Burrell was also the conspiracy-denier who claimed Diana was in love, not with Dodi Fayed, but a surgeon called Hasnat Khan, that the princess thought the jewellery Dodi bought her was rather vulgar, that the ring he gave her was a "friendship band", that their relationship had peaked, and that it was inconceivable that the Royal Family plotted to kill her.

And so it was that Paul Burrell (William Rhodes Secondary School, Chesterfield) found himself facing the combined adversarial intellects Mansfield (Keele University, Gray's Inn), Richard Keen QC (University of Edinburgh), Ian Burnett QC (Oxford, Middle Temple), and Ian Croxford QC (Leicester University, Gray's Inn). Burrell, as ever, was smartly turned out, perfectly mannered, and well versed in the etiquette of formal British occasions. But knowing which side the fish-knife should go wasn't going to save him now.

At first, all went well. Led through his recollections of the disturbed household that was chez Diana, Burrell kept the court as spellbound with his memories as he had those blue-rinse audiences on the QE2. But then, in the afternoon, his pretence of knowing more than he could possibly say began to fall apart. And when his account was challenged, he began to dissemble, prevaricate, and mislead. A few vignettes: "Q:... you presumably know what this secret is then, do you? A: I know many secrets, sir. Q: Please, Mr Burrell. It will take ages. We don't have endless time...".

And, in reference to the "intimate and very private" journal he coyly referred to on Monday: "Q: Would it be possible for somebody to retrieve ... the items? A: No. Q: It wouldn't? A: No. Q: Why? Are they hidden? A: They are in safekeeping. Q: How long would it take to retrieve them...? A:... I will have to think about that. Q: Well you must know where they are. A: Yes. Q:... Are they in the United Kingdom? A: Yes..."

Under such questioning, Burrell became flustered. The precious "journal" whose confidences wild horses would not drag from him on Monday, turned out on Tuesday not to exist. He confessed to copying out private letters between the princess and other royals, and to burning much of the raw material upon which he based his books. And everyone, including the magnificently patient coroner, began to tire of his shifting testimony. Lord Justice Scott Baker: "Then you refer to the secret you were unwilling to disclose yesterday and indicate that it's not in fact one secret, but two secrets... Having examined the matter, it doesn't seem to me that they are actually secrets at all... One of them, indeed, appears in your book..."

Counsel were more direct, adapting Diana's famous description of him to call him "a rather porous rock", and asking him: "So how are we to decide if you were telling the truth on 14th January, or on 15th January or on 16th January?". Like the princess before him, self-pity began to set in. "I am beginning to feel I am on trial," he said. "It's been horrid... it's been quite disgraceful, actually... it seems like a character assassination".

Eventually, two days later than intended, it was over. And so it was back to Florida and a search of his many-roomed mansion for the missing documents he had promised the court. Will they be found? Have they been burned? That's between an ex-butler and his coroner.

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