Windsors display new litigious streak

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The Independent Online
IN 1911, George V sued E F Mylius, an anarchist journalist, for libel, after allegations in an obscure Paris journal that the King was a bigamist.

The story of an abandoned first wife had been whispered, and occasionally printed, since the King married the future Queen Mary in 1893. Perhaps it was the article's distribution to every MP in Britain that finally forced the King to act, but in court the rumour was finally quashed and Mylius sentenced to 12 months in prison.

For most of the 20th century, however, court action has been considered beneath the Royal Family. Barring the notable exception, the monarch and his or her relatives remained above innuendo, rumour and petty libel at home and abroad.

Today, the publication of grainy, blurred photographs of the Prince of Wales without his clothes or the release of a report critical of palace spending is enough to send courtiers scurrying for the nearest solicitor. The palace press office insisted yesterday that it was for outside commentators to debate whether litigation had become more popular with the Royal Family in recent years. But a rash of legal threats, impending proceedings and successful litigation suggests a fundamental change in the Windsors' attitude.

More scintillating to the public than the sight of the Prince of Wales in the raw is the prospect, early next year, of the Princess of Wales giving evidence in court against Bryce Taylor, a former gym owner. She is suing Mr Taylor for breach of confidence and breach of contract after he took pictures of her working out, in a leotard, through a concealed camera and sold them to the Daily Mirror newspaper. If she has her day in court, the Princess, who is also suing Mirror Group Newspapers for breach of confidence and inducing breach of contract, will be the first royal in modern times to give evidence in the High Court.

Her action comes two years after her sister-in-law, the Duchess of York, took the French magazine Paris Match - which has also published the nude pictures of the Prince of Wales - to court after it published highly embarrassing pictures of her having her toes sucked in St Tropez by her friend and adviser Johnny Bryan. Under France's strict privacy laws, the duchess was awarded more than pounds 60,000 damages against the magazine and Daniel Agneli, the self-styled king of the paparazzi.

The Sun has lost most money to the Windsors' new approach to litigation. In November 1988, it paid pounds 100,000 compensation to a charity of the Queen's choosing for breach of copyright after publishing an allegedly stolen private photograph of the Duchess of York and baby. The out-of-court settlement also included a front-page apology.

Four years later the Queen again sued the tabloid after it printed her Christmas Day message on 23 December. This breach cost the Sun pounds 200,000. The tabloid also paid substantial compensation to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1987 after publishing, on its front page, a private letter concerning Prince Edward's decision to leave the Marines. In keeping with tradition the money went to charity.

Viscount Linley is the only member of the modern Royal Family to have given evidence in court when he successfully sued for libel following press allegations of 'loutish' behaviour in a Chelsea restaurant. Theories abound concerning the royals' new keenness to meet in court. Commentators argue that with their image so badly battered the Windsors are fighting back, knowing that the very future of the monarchy is at stake. Others insist that it is society (less reverent) and newspapers (more cut-throat and competitive) that have changed, not the royals.

Ingrid Seward, editor-in- chief of Majesty magazine, believes that, whatever the reasons, the Windsors are right to sue: 'They are in a no-win situation. They have become a national soap opera. People would rather read scandalous stories about them than news about Bosnia. They have to be seen to be viable, but not too visible. The problem with suing is that you have to be selective. The Princess of Kent once told me that if she sued over every story that was printed about her, litigation would take up all her time. But if you only act occasionally you are open to the accusation that the unchallenged stories must have been true.

'I don't think Prince Charles will go to court about the nude pictures,' Ms Seward added. 'He has a sense of humour and will probably be amused. I think it was just a shot across the bows to prevent wide circulation of the material in Britain.'