IT IS perhaps the battle royal of royal stories and with it has come claim and counterclaim as the stakes rise and the hyperbole flows from Wapping and Holborn Circus, home of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.
For much of yesterday, the newspapers at the centre of the latest bugging scandal were as much in the news as the victims of the alleged bugging campaign. Great fun, but for Britain's largest-selling daily newspapers, the costs of losing the latest circulation battle could be enormous.
Round one went to the Sun when it broke the story early yesterday, claiming that it had proof that MI5 had bugged the Prince and Princess of Wales arguing furiously at Highgrove House. The Mirror countered quickly, claiming the story had been stolen from the transcript of a book, Diana v Charles, written by James Whitaker, its royal correspondent.
Both papers claimed to have evidence of the bugging campaign and proof of the involvement of the security services, the Sun pointing the finger at MI5, the Mirror at military intelligence officers based at GCHQ, the electronic eavesdropping centre at Cheltenham.
But neither paper was able to produce any convincing evidence yesterday and each admitted that it had never heard any original recordings. They had only transcripts.
At a riotous press conference inside the Mirror building, Mr Whitaker said his information came from a very senior lawyer who moves in royal and Government circles. All members of the Royal Family, including the Queen, were regularly bugged. 'I have been told that I am bugged myself,' he added.
However, in support of his claims, he was able only to produce two small pieces of paper supposedly showing a coded transcript of a taped conversation which he said was obtained from GCHQ. But a journalist who examined them closely said: 'They could have been produced by anyone with a typewriter and photocopier.'
The Sun also failed to produce evidence of authenticity, but it denied allegations by the Mirror's editor, David Banks, that it had 'stolen' yesterday's story from Mr Whitaker's book. Mr Banks said the publisher of the book, Signet Penguin, had sold the Australian rights to New Idea, a women's magazine with links to News International, publishers of the Sun.
Jane Reed, News International's director of corporate affairs, said the Sun's evidence came from an 'unimpeachable source'. When asked whether the newspaper could fully substantiate its allegations that the Royal Family was bugged by MI5, she replied: 'How the hell do you prove these things?'
The media frenzy was compounded by a further confusing morsel last night when David Alford, a reporter with the People, said that it was he who gave Mr Whitaker his sources and transcripts after writing a remarkably similar story last January.
'I knew James was writing a book so I gave him the stuff after I had finished with it,' he said. 'James knows a number of the people involved in getting the information because I told him about them, but he does not know the identity of the operative at GCHQ. Only I know that.'
Mr Whitaker admitted that some of his information came from Mr Alford, but he also insisted that he had his own sources and more independent details.
On 13 May we reported the assertion by the Daily Mirror's editor, David Banks, that the Sun had obtained information concerning the alleged bugging of conversations between the Prince and Princess of Wales via the Australian magazine New Idea.
The publishers of New Idea have assured us that, as the purchasers of the Australian rights to a forthcoming book on the Royals which contained the story, it observed an undertaking of confidentiality and made no disclosure to the Sun.
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