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The Royal Separation: Palace played the tabloid press and lost a love match: What part did the media play in the failure of the marriage? Or did the Royal Family tempt fate? Mark Lawson reports

AFTER the Conservative election victory in April, the nation's most famous tabloid newspaper announced on its front page: 'It Was The Sun Wot Won It'.

This was an unusually unguarded acknowledgement by a tabloid of the press's possible influence on events. Disgruntled monarchists and employees of the Palace press office might well argue that yesterday's announcement of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales should be followed by another front-page nostra culpa: 'It Was The Sun Wot Dun It'.

Yet, though the undecorous press treatment received by the Royal Family in 1992 must offer a cathartic target, such an excuse would ignore the complexities of the relationship between the royals and the press.

Mikhail Gorbachev opened up Soviet society to such an extent that it led to his own exit. The same judgement may yet be passed about the media glasnost which the Queen instituted in June 1969 with the showing of a respectful - but, in the context of the times, improbably revelatory - BBC fly-on-the-crown documentary, the Royal Family.

Yet, to be fair, the royals' gamble with accessibility was successful for some years. There was a public hunger for the smallest detail of royal life and a huge market grew to satisfy it. In playing the media game, the family was helped by the arrival of a media star: the Princess of Wales, her face able to swell the circulation of any magazine which put her on the cover.

Every tabloid newspaper employed its 'Man Who Really Knows The Royals'. But, at that stage, what they really knew was that a princess was pregnant, or was planning a new haircut or just possibly had argued with a nanny. It was not that Buckingham Palace was good at manipulating the press. With a combination of stone-walling and direct falsehood over small matters, it has always been poor at this. (This includes the decision to announce a royal separation in the very week when, with the news of the remarriage of the Princess Royal, the family had been receiving its most positive coverage of the year. Today is also the anniversary of the abdication). The explanation was more that the press was willingly uncritical, judging this to be the public attitude towards the Crown.

So it was that, as late as 1989, a royal scoop meant knowing what a princess had for breakfast. By this year it meant knowing who a princess had breakfast with.

Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, published in June and lavishly serialised in the Sunday Times and the Sun, depicted an irreconcilable split between the heir to the throne and his wife. In the matter of incompatibility, Morton was yesterday proved correct, whatever the truth of the book's more lurid suggestions that the future Queen was a suicidal bulimic, forced to these extremes by the Prince of Wales's fondness for his horsy confidante, Camilla Parker- Bowles.

Although sitting uncomfortably in any history of literature, Morton's Diana: Her True Story ranks high in lists of historically significant works. The real impact was less what the book said than what it permitted to be said.

It was true that there had been a gradual media retreat from deference towards the royals, since the trillingly supportive coverage of the weddings and babies of the Waleses and the Yorks in the early to mid-Eighties. Morton's revelations, however, sanctioned both frankness and sheer disbelief of the official Palace versions. It is extremely doubtful that the 'Squidgy' tape (a recording of a phone call between the Princess of Wales and an admirer) would have been published before Morton's book. The same is true of the holiday snaps of the Duchess of York.

There are those who will say that all of this was irrelevant tittle- tattle. Aristocratic marriages have cooled before, but continued with certain freedoms allowed beneath a cosmetic togetherness. These people will suggest that only the malicious interest of the media forced the Prince and Princess of Wales to make a formal announcement of separation.

This ignores the matter of social shifts. Deference is a dying reflex in Britain, and, in the democracies of the West, 1992 has been turbulent. America turned against its President and, perhaps, Britain too directed the tension of a recession towards its head of state. By the end of the year, the Queen agreed to pay taxes. Which came first? The pressure or the press?

Criticism of the media also misses the real significance of Morton's book, which survived to be taken more seriously than any other royal book, and to encourage further speculation and revelations. Previous such narratives had leaned heavily on rickety constructions like 'A friend says' or 'A Palace insider reveals'. Morton quoted friends and family of the princess to support his stories.

After publication, these sources publicly stood by the book, as, startlingly, did the Princess of Wales, publicly visiting and hugging her friend, Carolyn Bartholomew, a contributor to the author's research. It seems reasonable that either the Princess of Wales knew what was happening or her mates bravely bet the continuation of their friendship against their wish to assist the writer.

The publication of the book swung popular sympathy behind the Princess of Wales to such an extent that marital failure has led not to her banishment from the Royal Family - as was the fate of her sister-in-law, the Duchess of York - but to her survival with all trappings intact.

The media did play a role in the events which reached their culmination yesterday, but it may not be the one which is immediately assumed. Some will say that the Royal Family's current difficulties are the result of the failure of the Queen's 20-year experiment with the press. Others, though, will point to the triumphant success of a more recent experiment by the Princess of Wales in letting the media in on a few secrets. Was It Di Wot Dun It?

The Duchess of York was yesterday awarded more than pounds 60,000 damages by a French court over intimate photographs published by Paris Match, taken during her holiday in St Tropez with her 'financial adviser' John Bryan.

(Photograph omitted)