Rumours poison Spain's fairytale wedding

As nail-biting moments go, this one ranks high for Juan Carlos, King of Spain, as he prepares for the marriage of Crown Prince Felipe to Letizia Ortiz, a glamorous television journalist and divorcee, next Saturday. If he can keep the Spanish media from voicing their doubts about her past life and suitability as future queen until after the wedding, then the King will be happy. But if just one Spanish newspaper or TV station breaks ranks with salacious revelations at the 11th hour, then the ensuing rush of negative coverage could turn the wedding into a fiasco.

The King intends the event to be, as the fawning Spanish tabloids have portrayed it, the "wedding of the century". But in the past couple of weeks, sour mutterings have emerged from Spain's newly resurgent political left. There have been calls for spending curbs on the wedding, which is expected to cost tens of millions of euros, not only on the celebrations but also on heightened security. Adding to the irritation was a surprise statement by the new socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, that gay marriages should be legalised and male primacy in the royal line abolished. Given its timing, this was interpreted as a none-too-subtle attempt to undermine the dignity of the wedding and the monarchy in general.

Before the Madrid bombings there seemed no question that Spain would throw its all into celebrating the occasion and allow nothing to tarnish the fairytale romance. Aided by the conservative government - which was ousted immediately after the bombings - Juan Carlos had gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress intrusion into the past of Ms Ortiz, despite the fact that, as the wife of the heir to the throne and future queen, such scrutiny is unavoidable.

The most obvious act was to persuade the government, some months ago, to place all Ms Ortiz's divorce papers under 24-hour guard in a 1,300lb safe purchased specially for the purpose. It was a public signal that she was to be left alone. But behind the scenes there have also been allegations of a campaign of intimidation aimed at the media.

Media figures say privately that they have received implicit warnings that any negative commentary about the impending union will lead to reprisals in the form of extensive tax investigations. It is even widely believed that the future princess's ex-husband, Madrid language professor Alfonso Guerrero, has not only been "briefed" by officials from the palace but also visited by the secret police. In Spain, their role has traditionally been interpreted as suppressing scandals before they come to light.

The worry is that suppressing any revelations now may lead to mass disillusionment when any such details inevitably emerge. These elements have now combined to create a climate of anxiety among the powerful upper middle classes. The suitability of Letizia Ortiz to be the next queen has been their talking point for months, and the tempo is rising fast as the wedding approaches.

More worrying, perhaps, is that the general public is starting to become aware that there are doubts about her. When the engagement was announced last November it was greeted rapturously by the Spanish people. But since then, thousands of internet sites have turned their attention to the future queen, offering lurid speculation about her past. One openly nicknames her "Putizia" - a combination of her name and puta, the Spanish word for whore. Her sexual history, real and supposed, is now being discussed with an almost obsessive zeal.

Pictures alleged to show Ms Ortiz in compromising situations have appeared. None of the Spanish papers will publish them, although in January El Mundo took the relatively daring step of running on its website a fairly innocuous nude portrait said to have been painted some years ago in Mexico, which first decorated a restaurant and then served as a poster for a band.

Most damaging is the one that appears on a pornographic website, xonsuns.com, which apparently shows Ms Ortiz posing in skimpy bikini bottoms, her legs spread wide, and lifting her T-shirt to reveal the lower half of her breasts. The palace has implied that the picture is a composite but experts claim - again, in private - that if it is a fake then it is one of uniquely high quality.

All this has led to a seismic shift in public attitudes. So far the royal family has dealt with these problems by ignoring them while launching a general public relations offensive. Prince Felipe called off two pre-nuptial parties following the Madrid bombings, donating the money that would have been spent to bomb victims' families and towards the cost of a monument.

And the King's strategy appears to be working. A scathing and well-founded story currently being hawked around by a Spanish news agency, about an affair some years ago between Ms Ortiz and a married American journalist, has been roundly rejected by prospective buyers in Spain.

But as the tension mounts in the last few days before the wedding, some sensational revelations about Ms Ortiz might prove irresistible. If so, the wedding - with representatives from more than 40 royal families due to attend - could turn into a supremely grand embarrassment.

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