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The Royals and the Press: Public relations battle with no prisoners taken: Opposing camps supplied gossip columnists and tabloids with information (CORRECTED)


THE PICTURE of the royal marriage as a public relations battleground clearly shocked Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

But even a cursory glance at the more persistent stories in the tabloid newspapers during the past two years, and in particular those that the Palace press office declined to deny, should have given the clue that rival newspapers were being used to present opposing viewpoints from the camps of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Royal reporters and gossip columnists did not believe yesterday that Lord McGregor could have been unaware that friends or aides were calling newspapers or co-operating in passing information.

Similarly the news that Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary, could offer assurances to Lord McGregor that neither camp was leaking information selectively to counter the other side's propaganda offensive was 'almost laughable'.

Nigel Dempster, the gossip columnist for the Daily Mail, said: 'I haven't called the Palace press office for years. They have no idea what's going on. They are just there to pick up the pieces after a disaster. Lord McGregor simply does not understand Sir Robert. He is a forelock tugger.'

That serves to emphasise the image of an antiquated and bewildered Palace press office caught between the two warring parties with little clue of how to react.

According to Mr Dempster most of the information came from friends of the Prince and Princess, who if not actually directed to speak to the newspapers, had their tacit approval to put across a point of view.

'It's a bit like Henry II saying 'Can't someone be doing something about this Thomas a Becket' and his supporters rushing off to do his bidding. So with the Royals. Sometimes we got calls from people wishing to redress the balance of a story that appeared in another newspaper.

'So often if a story putting Princess Diana's side of the story appeared in, say, the Daily Express then we at the Daily Mail might get a call from someone on Prince Charles's side.'

He said Prince Charles's allies include Nicholas Soames, formerly an equerry to the Prince and now minister for food; Belinda Harley, 'who is much more than his private secretary'; and friends Charles and Patti Palmer-Tomkinson, and Tommy and Gina Sopwith.

The Princess's entourage - 'more modern raffish and accessible' - consists of her former flatmates, Virginia Pitman, Carolyn Bartholomew and Anne Bolton; her sisters Lady Jane Fellowes, wife of Sir Robert, and Lady Sarah McCorquodale; her brother Viscount Althorp; and Kate Menzies and James Gilbey.

Within the two camps, styles differed, with the Princess on occasion passing on the information herself. Mr Dempster said: 'She relies on the common touch. On walkabouts she takes the opportunity to plant personal information on reporters. She tells them, for instance, how hurt she is or how concerned she is about the effect on the children - snippets which she knows will be picked up by the press pack and widely reported.

'She operates at a popular level; he is more discreet.'

One royal correspondent was quite clear that the Princess's camp first gained the upper hand. 'Her side were more manipulative, and from earlier on. These were people who were used to dealing with the press and could phone up people whom they mixed with socially.'

The correspondent said that the Princess's close friend, Carolyn Bartholomew, had talked openly to reporters since early 1991, when the first reports of a rift in the marriage appeared.

One example of clear manipulation by the Prince's camp came in July 1991, following widespread tabloid criticism of his failure to organise a 30th birthday party for his wife. Stung by the portrayal of the Prince, his friends got in touch with Mr Dempster, who wrote a front-page piece in the newspaper making it clear that Charles had offered to organise a party but the Princess had declined.

The Prince's aides found their feet with the publication of Andrew Morton's book, Diana: Her True Story, in which her friends co- operated with the author to give her side of the story which showed Charles in a poor light.

One friend contacted Penny Junor, after she had appeared on radio and television rubbishing many of the allegations that had been made against the Prince, and encouraged her to continue.

'I had said that she was a little girl who was 'out to lunch', ' Ms Junor said. 'She was suffering bulimia and was clearly mad. The picture painted of Charles of the monstrous father was simply not the man I knew.'

Ms Junor contacted other friends of the Prince who confirmed what she had been told, with the result that Today led the newpaper with 'Charles - His True Story', denying many of the things outlined in the book.

The Princess of Wales' camp retaliated and sought to give the book greater weight with a photo-opportunity in which many newspapers were contacted and warned to be at the home of Mrs Bartholomew. Diana duly appeared on the doorstep to demonstrate her support for her friend -one of the main sources of Morton's book.

This was the event that finally showed to Lord McGregor - alerted by Andrew Knight, chief executive of News International - that the Princess was using newspapers to support her case. But he still refuses to acknowledge that the Prince's camp was involved in the same game.

All the journalists involved in royal reporting rejected the idea that the Prince and Princess had formally recruited rival newspaper groups to put their points of view. 'If someone phones you up with a good story, you use it, whether it is favourable to one side or the other,' one said.

(Photograph omitted)