Ingenuous editors, the most bogus press complaint: Conor Cruise O'Brien looks in vain for honesty in the royal press debate

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'Manipulation' was the in-word in most of the press last week. Following the 'revelation' by Lord McGregor of Durris, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, about the press relations of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Sun wrote editorially: 'Charles and Diana have been cynically manipulating the press.' Most of the rest of the papers took much the same line. The general trend of press commentary on the McGregor document is accurately reflected in the following, which appeared in the International Herald Tribune:

'The revelation that Charles and Diana, far from being hounded by the tabloids, had actively sought to manipulate them seemed likely to further tarnish the image of the Royal Family.' In reality, there was no revelation and no manipulation on the part of the Prince and the Princess. Everyone with any interest in these matters has known for more than a year what the actual situation is and the tabloids, now wailing about being the victims of manipulation, knew it better than anyone else. Everyone knew both Charles and Diana had been supplying, through their friends, their own version of their private lives to 'sympathetic' journalists.

In all that, where does the 'manipulation' come in? The journalists concerned knew perfectly well what they were getting and avidly competed in order to get it. The proprietors and managements also perfectly understood what was going on and heartily approved. The conflicting accounts kept the hugely profitable story running and running. The picture of a crafty Prince and Princess manipulating the trusting innocents from the tabloids is so ludicrous that one wonders how so many competent journalists, last week, could affect to take it seriously. In feeding stuff to the tabloids, the Prince and Princess, far from being crafty, were foolish. In seeking to defend themselves severally, they damaged themselves jointly. In reality, the joint manipulation was done by the tabloids themselves, and the error of the Prince and Princess was to co-operate with their manipulations - with some enthusiasm, in the case of the Princess.

If the tabloids are not lagging, when it comes to manipulation, it was Lord McGregor who, last week, showed himself to be the Grand Master of Manipulation. In considering the McGregor version of events one needs to bear firmly in mind that all concerned, surely including Lord McGregor, had long been aware of the basic situations that both the Prince and Princess had supplied chosen sections of the press with their own version of their private lives. That being so, Lord McGregor's story of how he was deceived and then disillusioned is not credible.

Lord McGregor says he asked the Queen's secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, whether it was true that the Princess was 'orchestrating coverage of her side of the story'. Having elicited the predictable denial, he went public with what sounded at the time like a burst of generous 'indignation'. In a colourful phrase, he accused the section of the press concerned of 'dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls'.

Then he was 'shocked and disappointed' to discover that he had been deceived and that it had indeed been the Princess who was 'intruding on her own privacy'. The message was: 'It is not the press which is guilty, it is the Princess]' The revelation about Lord McGregor's shock and disappointment, and about the Princess's role, was neatly timed to precede and undermine the Calcutt Report which, if implemented, would have replaced Lord McGregor's 'self-regulating' Press Complaints Commission with a statutory form of regulation.

It rather looks, does it not, in retrospect that the earlier 'dabbling their fingers' outburst was carefully calculated? It cast Lord McGregor in the role of a harsh critic of the tabloids, only to render his subsequent emergence in the role of their reluctant vindicator, on the eve of Calcutt, all the more effective. In Scotland, the McGregor clan have a Machiavellian reputation and Lord McGregor of Durris is worthy of that heritage.

All these things are said and done in the name of the freedom of the press, and it is not unreasonable to see the Calcutt proposal of statutory regulation as threatening that freedom. But the press is threatened also, from within, by the kind of defence that was being offered last week, in an orgy of misrepresentation and disinformation. Something does need to be done to curb the excesses of the tabloids which, at present, tend to destabilise Britain by undermining the constitutional monarchy, which has served the country so long and generally so well. The tabloids now claim to have been vindicated from the charge of hounding the Royal Family. This enables them to get on with the hounding all the more effectively.

In the same issue in which it complained about having been cynically manipulated, the Sun's front page consisted of a large headline, '6 min love tape could cost Charles throne', together with pictures of the Prince and Camilla Parker Bowles. The Prince's picture was artfully arranged so as to make it look as if he was peering down the lady's cleavage.

The power of the tabloids has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. How this can be done, without encroaching on the legitimate freedom of the press, is a matter that will be examined in the debate over Calcutt. It is to be hoped that the press as a whole will report and comment on that debate with more honesty than was on display last week.