It must be true, they leaked it to the papers

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LAST week was an extraordinary and schizophrenic seven days for the tabloids, with so much royal dirty linen being washed in public. Dirtiest by far has been not the Camillagate pillow talk, but the unprecedented incidental revelations about how Buckingham Palace and the press collude. I am thinking, for instance, of Lord McGregor's casual disclosure that he attended meetings at the Palace to discuss with courtiers how best to control royal press coverage, or the Sun's admission that it faxed a story to Prince Charles, or Sir David English's statement that Charles's friends often tried to place stories in the Daily Mail.

But let's begin at the beginning: where is the beginning? From the reader's point of view it was Tuesday's publication of the leaked letter from Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to Sir David Calcutt, saying that the commission was powerless to control royal coverage when the Princess of Wales was manipulating the press for her own ends. This led to an extraordinary and hysterical spate of anti-Di headlines in Wednesday's tabloids - 'Di the Deceiver', 'Princess of Wiles', 'Sly Di', 'Diana in the Dock' - which in most papers totally eclipsed the news that the full Camilla tape had finally been published in Australia. Only the Sun led with Camillagate, which it headlined inelegantly '6 min Love Tape Could Cost Charles Throne'. Other papers ran it as a second story and concentrated on asking where the tape had come from and whether it was shocking for a future king to talk dirty, without raising the only important constitutional question, which is whether the Church of England will be willing to accept an adulterer as its Supreme Head.

I wonder whether the virtually simultaneous publication of the Camilla tape and the McGregor letter was altogether coincidental. It certainly turned out very conveniently for the Palace, who, according to the Daily Mail, knew that Australian publication was imminent from at least the Friday beforehand. Let's frame the question another way. Given that Charles and Diana are going to divorce - and they are - what should we expect a loyal monarchist press to do? Obviously we should expect it to damage Diana as much as possible, so that when the divorce comes through, public sympathy will be all on Charles's side and he can become king and perhaps even remarry. This seems to me to have been the clear agenda ever since the separation announcement in early December.

However, it is not quite as easy to wave the PR wand as the Palace might wish. The tabloids do, after all, have readers who are not entirely incapable of independent thought. If a paper's editorial line strays too far from what its readers believe, then the readers desert it. So journalists can't just turn round and say: 'Hey, you know we've been telling you for years that Princess Di is a saint? Well it turns out she's a scheming bitch after all, who's been fooling us all along.' Or can they? The leak of Lord McGregor's letter happened at just the right time because it enabled the tabloids to do precisely that - to say, oh my goodness, how we have been duped] This was the general theme on Wednesday, seen at its purest and silliest in Today, which reported that Diana had plotted two months beforehand to sit alone in front of the Taj Mahal looking forlorn so that everyone would feel sorry for her. The only difficulty with this argument was that it depended on journalists making themselves out to be starry-eyed innocents who could hardly cope outside a nunnery but that, valiantly and loyally, is what most of them managed to do.

Some papers, however, dragged their heels and were not quite as tractable as the Palace might have wished. Sir David English, former editor of the Daily Mail and current chairman of Associated Newspapers, said on Wednesday that Diana was not the only one doing the manipulating: 'Prince Charles's friends and advisers definitely gave us stories, putting his side of the marriage troubles - stories which did not reflect well on Diana.' He mentioned in particular the July 1991 story about Charles offering to give Diana a 30th birthday party and her refusing which, I have long believed, marked the first public gunshot in the war between the Waleses.

Even more astonishing was the Sun's admission on Wednesday that it had once faxed a story to Charles and dropped it at his request. It was a pro-Charles story saying that his friends were furious about Andrew Morton's book but that he was urging them to stay silent 'in case the whole saga turns into a slanging match'. The prince told the Sun that he did not think the story would 'help his cause' and asked them to spike it, which they did. Recounting all this, the Sun remarked: 'Many readers will be shocked at the level of co-operation between the Royals and The Sun. WE WERE SHOCKED OURSELVES.'

Yes indeed. And what does such an admission mean, pray? I take it to mean that the Sun's editor does not always have total control over his own paper and is liable to interference from his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, or his henchman Andrew Knight. Knight, let it always be remembered, is the man who once boasted in the Spectator that he bought up royal stories in order to suppress them.

AND SO to Camillagate. The Sun's Wednesday leader, 'Why today we gag ourselves' again showed symptoms of an editor at odds with his proprietor when it asked 'SO WHY ISN'T THE SUN TELLING ITS READERS WHAT HALF THE PLANET SEEMS TO KNOW?' and answered itself: 'We're worried that we're being set up. Being given enough rope to hang ourselves. Wouldn't the Establishment just love that? IT IS AN APPALLING STATE OF AFFAIRS FOR ANY NEWSPAPER.'

I don't myself believe that the Sun's self-denial was necessary in terms of its readers' sensibilities: once every paper in the world was publishing the Camillagate transcript and half London was faxing it to each other, it was only a matter of time before the British papers did the same. (Incidentally I hope the editor of Kent Today wins an award for his enterprise.) The Sun, however, moved with extraordinary caution, holding a phone poll on Thursday inviting readers to vote on whether they wanted to read the Camilla tape, and still not publishing it on Friday, even though the poll came in at 28,000 to 4,000 in favour. It is worth noting that the Sun did not take any such precautionary measures with the Squidgy tape, but published it cold to an unsuspecting world, first in print and then on the phone. Rupert Murdoch may be a republican, but he has certainly done the monarchy a few good turns in the past year.

Should the Camillagate tape have been published? In an ideal world, obviously not, because a private phone call should never have been recorded, but once it had been and was winging round the world, it seemed positively pusillanimous for the British tabloids to hold back. Perhaps they were trying to show their readers what a post-Calcutt, censored press would look like - all nods and winks and wreathed smiles about Tampax for those in the know, with no genuine information or elucidation for mere ordinary readers.

Who made the tapes? Obviously someone in GCHQ or MI5 and certainly not the press. They were quite puzzled by their windfall and uncertain what to do with it. The Sun reputedly sat on their Squidgy tape for many weeks, and there is some evidence that they also had a copy of the Camillagate tape when the Mirror published bits of it in November but kept it under their hats.

There are at least two versions of each tape floating round, plus an unpublished Fergie tape, but the London Evening Standard claimed on Thursday that it was told by a GCHQ source that there were as many as 2,400 royal tapes in existence. These could keep the papers busy for years - or not, if Calcutt has his way. Incidentally, I was interested to see Cyril Reenan, the listening bank manager, telling Friday's Sun that he definitely recorded the Squidgy tape on 4 January, 1989, although internal references in the conversation made it clear it took place on New Year's Eve. He also remarked that the police attitude to his taping was 'lenient' and that, 'they are treating me almost like a film star.'

Press coverage of the Camilla tape has revealed some bizarre moral confusions in the minds of commentators. Stephen Glover - who, as a former editor of this paper and a clergyman's son to boot, should know better - asked in Thursday's Evening Standard, 'So what's wrong with a king who can talk dirty?' Well obviously there's nothing wrong with a king who can talk dirty - I imagine most people who read the transcript would have been quite pleased to learn he was so lusty - but he was talking dirty to a woman who is not his wife, and whose husband is supposed to be his close friend. It is not the language, but the deceit that is shocking - the plotting and planning about where they can meet, the cool appraisal of which friends they can impose on, even her wish that the ambulance strike will continue so that her husband will be too busy to come home.

The tape reminds us what adultery actually involves - deceiving one's spouse, embarrassing one's friends, regretting the children are at home because it makes it harder to meet. I suppose that the Church of England is coming round to condoning it - whether it can also swallow the prospect of a Supreme Head who apparently believes in reincarnation (and as a box of Tampax) is more open to doubt.

THE new agenda seems to be that Charles will keep his head down and weather the storm while Diana will go batty. Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail penned a moving picture of her new loneliness with the children back at school and no husband around (though since that has been her situation for some time, she has presumably adjusted by now) while Chris Hutchins in Today claimed sensationally that 'one of the Queen's most senior courtiers' had told a dinner party that, 'the professional opinion is that she could easily take her own life'. Are the same Funny People who bugged her phone calls now planning to give her an overdose? If I were Diana, I'd prepare my own food from now on, just to be on the safe side.

A Today poll on Friday shows that both Charles and Diana have been harmed by recent revelations, she rather more than him. More seriously, though, the survey shows that the number of people who think we'd be better off without a monarchy is steadily increasing - from 13 per cent in 1987 to 20 per cent last October (after Morton and Squidgy) to 27 per cent. If this trend continues, we will have a republican majority by the turn of the century. It is time for the Government to step in - not by censoring the press, as Calcutt would have it, but by staffing the Palace press office with its own appointees.

(Photograph omitted)

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