How the Prince and his men broke cover and helped to turn a scandalous rumour into 'common currency'

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The Independent Online

No one will be paying closer attention to the contents of tomorrow's Mail on Sunday than the Prince of Wales's private secretary, Sir Michael Peat.

It was Sir Michael who appeared on television on Thursday night to make a dramatic denial on behalf of Prince Charles in respect of an allegation that he claimed had gained a "common currency".

If the newspaper chooses to take the Prince at his word and accept that the principal witness to the alleged event is not a credible source for its story, then Sir Michael's high-risk strategy will have paid off.

But if the paper believes that the story, and the Prince's denial, must be told, then Sir Michael's efforts to kill the allegations will have failed. The terms of the secret injunction, which was varied by the High Court on Thursday, may be wide enough for the newspaper to think it is worth the risk to publish and be damned.

Public relations experts were already declaring that the Prince's strategy had been flawed from the start. The public relations adviser Max Clifford said: "I can see what they are trying to do - but I don't think it's going to be effective."

He said Sir Michael's intervention would only serve to prompt "wild speculation" among the public about what the alleged incident was. It also set a dangerous precedent, making it more difficult for the Palace to adopt a no-comment strategy in the face of scurrilous allegations.

Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the Queen, said that he thought it had been a mistake to release the statement. "Given the same scenario I would have maintained a dignified silence, this should be nothing to do with them," he said. "The injunction was brought by a former employee, I think they should have distanced themselves from it."

He told Sky News that he did not believe the Queen was involved in the decision to issue the statement and that Clarence House had acted alone. "Sir Michael [Peat] works for the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Wales works from Clarence House, I think we have to separate the two. This is very much a Clarence House initiative with the approval of the Prince of Wales."

But in one respect Sir Michael's hands were tied. A libel action with the Prince as one of the key witnesses was not an option for the Palace. Other public figures can threaten libel, but threats made by the Royal Family appear increasingly empty. The recent Paul Burrell trial illustrates the reluctance of members of the Royal Family to appear in a public court, even if it is the only forum for settling a grave complaint. By Thursday foreign newspapers, outside the jurisdiction of British courts and not subject to injunctions issued by them, had begun to take an interest in the story while damaging details were beginning to appear on the internet.

No doubt these were the kind of issues hastily thrashed out between Prince Charles and his private secretary when they spent half-an-hour on the telephone on Thursday night deciding on their strategy.

The royal biographer Penny Junor told Sky News yesterday that she thought it was quite sensible for Sir Michael to issue some kind of statement.

"The allegations are so vile someone should put something in the public arena to counter that. They were made by a man who was an alcoholic depressive and was unwell at the time he made the allegations. I find them offensive and extraordinary and I think it was right that somebody put something into the public arena saying this is not true."

She said that the statement was an indication of how angry the Prince was about it. Every time allegations against him were made, he and his family suffered, she added.

Lord Hurd of Westwell, the former foreign secretary and a friend of the Prince, said: "I don't know quite what else they could have done. We have drifted, we have all drifted, into a world of hint journalism where these sort of poisonous, half-published stories swill across the world. There have always been false stories. Not just about the royals but about prime ministers, about President Clinton, President Nixon, President Chirac.

"There is nothing new about that, but in the old days, of course, these stories started in a pub, they were false, they ended in a pub."

But Mr Clifford said that there were more accusations and allegations "out there".

He said: "The problem for them is that Paul Burrell has come out with revelations which obviously are proving embarrassing to the Royal Family - and he stands to make hundreds of thousands of pounds from it.

"In the past, nobody would have dared, but he has, and is getting away with it. Now if you're earning £9,000 a year and see a chance to set up your family with a large cash sum, then more and more people are going to think about it."