This royal tittle-tattle is none of our business

Let's admit, if we read this upsetting stuff, that we don't care about the emotions of those concerned
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The Independent Online

One of the most obviously disingenuous questions being asked about Paul Burrell's publication of various letters and documents relating to the late Princess of Wales and her marriage is "why has he waited until now to make these public?" The answer is perfectly obvious to anyone remotely cynical. He felt that he could make a great deal of money out of the information, which he has, both by publishing the revelations in the newspapers and by promoting his new book, out next week from Penguin.

If you ask, however, why he has not published a book and made this information available earlier, and certainly the market value even of this information has gone down in the six years since Diana, Princess of Wales was killed, there is another answer. His trial for theft exonerated him from stealing objects, letters and manuscripts. A court has more or less said that however he came by the objects in his possession, he did not steal them. From that, he has confidently concluded no one will question the idea that the letters which he is quoting from were given to him by his employer, and that they are his possessions to do with as he wishes.

To explain how a very peculiar and dubious situation has arisen, a little explanation must be set out relating to the legal ownership of letters.

Letters occupy a double status in law. The copyright in the words of a letter rests with the author of that letter, and they may not be reproduced without permission. The physical objects, however, become the personal property of the recipient of the letter, who may do with them what he or she chooses.

Hence the strange situation relating to the cache of letters sent by the Princess of Wales to her lover, James Hewitt. He is trying to sell these letters to the highest bidder, but if anyone buys them, they are in effect only objects. They could not, for instance, be printed by the purchaser, or made public to any extent. That is because the copyright in the words remains with the estate of the Princess of Wales, who would naturally never grant such permission. They may be quoted briefly, but courts of law have been very conservative in the past about the degree to which usage may be made before copyright is breached. In the United States, the courts have held that even brief quotation is unacceptable if it may be said to contain "the expressive heart" of a letter.

Similarly, in the present case, the version of events presented by Mr Burrell is that he owns a number of letters - the physical objects - sent by the Duke of Edinburgh to the Princess of Wales, and one or more memoranda set down by the Princess of Wales before her death. He came by this ownership, he says, because his employer gave them to him.

She was, indeed, perfectly entitled to give them to him. But we must ask how plausible his story is. There appears to be no evidence, apart from his word, that she actually did give them to him. The only documentation supporting his claim seems to be an envelope, written in the Princess's hand, addressed to "Paul", which he says contained the memorandum, or letter, in which she seems to predict her own death, but which might just as easily originally have contained a Christmas card, a list of instructions, or anything at all.

We must ask, in fact, how likely it is that the Princess of Wales, who if she saw the significance of her own fears, and the almost historic importance of the series of letters from the Duke of Edinburgh, would surely have done more than confide them, in advance of her death, to her wavering and starstruck butler.

If she had thought it important to keep such things safe, in the event of her sudden death, she would certainly have given them to some more trustworthy person, such as her solicitor. She must have seen, apart from anything else, that if she gave the Duke of Edinburgh's letters to her butler in the fear that she might suddenly die, her butler would personally be in a position to make a great deal of money out of them. It is simply an incredible claim for Mr Burrell to make. These letters, sent by the Duke of Edinburgh to the Princess of Wales, were almost certainly in the Princess of Wales's possession when she died, and belong to the estate, and it is up to Mr Burrell to prove otherwise.

The copyright question is a different one, but reflects no more credit on Mr Burrell. The words quoted are the Duke of Edinburgh's, and it is for him to give permission to publish. Of course, these letters seem to be intensely private communications on intensely private matters, which are no concern of ours, and he would never give such permission. Even if the Princess had lived and was now writing her own autobiography, she could not quote extensively from these letters.

What Mr Burrell is doing is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the laws of copyright. Penguin's lawyers will have taken a firm view on how much could be quoted from each letter while remaining within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. Whether any English court will take the view that his use of the letters violates something called "the expressive heart" of each, or whether that is something which English law can recognise, remains to be seen.

All that one can say now is that some aspects of the disintegration of the Wales's marriage were of legitimate public interest. But much of the story is not our concern, and the documentation relating to it ought to remain secure from the public eye until there is no one left to whom it can cause the most direct and purposeless suffering. It proves nothing that the Princess of Wales thought herself in danger. Nothing at all is furthered by letting anyone outside the immediate family know what the Duke of Edinburgh thought of his son and daughter-in-law's lovers. The only end which is really being served here is Mr Burrell's bank account.

It is absolutely clear that Mr Burrell does not have any power to publish any of the letters and memoranda in his possession. It is far from proved that he really owns them. What someone so wholly unconnected with the family is doing making money out of them is a question only to be answered by a vein of repulsive prurience among the general public. But please, let's not pretend that any of these revelations raise matters of any public interest; let's just admit, if we read this horrible and upsetting stuff, that we don't care one bit about the emotions of the people concerned.

Diana Wales was a complex, deluded, unstable, energetic woman who married most unsuitably, for all the wrong reasons, and who worked out at roughly the same time, apparently, as her husband that they had both made a mistake.

The divorce was long-drawn-out and acrimonious due to various concerns about public implications which do not affect many other unsuccessful marriages. Subsequently, she was killed young in a car crash. Shall we leave the whole matter at that, and accept that we are now unlikely to discover anything but gruesome domestic details filling in the outlines of what is already a tale told far too often; accept that it is not our business, not Mr Burrell's, and, making a firm effort of will, decline to purchase his horrible book?