Tabloids shrug off royal gag

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Buckingham Palace has signalled a new hard line in its relationship with the press by threatening to restrict access to photographers from newspapers which do not respect the privacy of the Royal Family over Christmas and New Year.

An operational note to editors warned that newspapers judged guilty of intrusion could lose rights to have accredited photographers take pictures at private royal occassions.

The threat comes at the end of a year in which the marital affairs of the Queen's children, combined with a string of disclosures in the press, have led to unprecedented questioning of the future of the monarchy. But if it was meant to stem the flow of articles about the bitter relationships within the family, it failed.

Nearly all yesterday's tabloids led with allegations that Prince Charles had told the Princess of Wales she would not see her two sons for a week over Christmas. The decision was said to be a response to her refusal to spend Christmas with the rest of the royals at their Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

Last week one of the Sun's longest-serving royal photographers, Arthur Edwards, known to readers as 'Cheeky Arfur', had his rota pass for Sandringham withdrawn after the paper published a leaked copy of the Queen's Christmas Day message.

Rota passes are distributed by the Newspaper Publishers' Association (NPA) to national newspapers and agencies on the understanding that all material will be made available immediately to other papers.

The Sun was told on Tuesday that it had been awarded the picture pass, but the next day, when it published the Queen's speech, the NPA transferred it to the Daily Express. The palace disclaimed involvement in the decision. Palace spokesmen emphasised that the Royal Family's need to be left alone at Christmas and New Year had seldom been greater. The rota will be reviewed if the family's privacy is breached and those judged guilty of intrusion could have privileges withdrawn in 1993.

A widespread ban might limit the future ability of newspapers to reproduce pictures such as those which showed the Royal Family attending the morning service at Sandringham Church - in the estate's private grounds - in yesterday's tabloids, but many editors doubted that the obstacle would prove insurmountable.

One view was that it would be self-defeating: withdrawal of privileges would deprive the palace of one of its strongest points of leverage over the press.

Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, was not available for comment. Charles Wilson, managing director of Mirror Group Newspapers, which includes the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People, said it was typical of the 'short-sighted way they (the palace) carry things out'. If newspapers lost accreditation, they would find a way round the ban and 'just do the same thing next year', he said.

The National Grid said 'there was no discernible difference' in the amount of power used after the Queen's Christmas message was screened simultaneously at 3pm on BBC1 and ITV.

Nearly 21 million viewers watched the speech last year, including repeats on BBC2 and Channel 4 in the evening, and the combined audience was expected to be roughly the same this time.