Royals bugged: not so exclusive

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The Independent Online
WHILE SERIOUS journalists spent the week discussing privacy and other ethical questions raised by the new outbreak of royal tapes, low hacks like myself spent the week discussing an ethical question much nearer home: how on earth does James Whitaker get away with it? Consider the facts. He is employed at vast expense by the Mirror to bring them royal exclusives, yet his biggest exclusive for yonks appeared in Wednesday's Sun - a transcript of a row allegedly between Charles and Diana allegedly taped from a room bug in Highgrove, allegedly planted by MI5.

The story was not in fact new. The People had claimed on 17 January: 'We have been handed a transcript of a furious row between Charles and Di at Highgrove. The recording of their face- to-face feud was obtained from the spy centre GCHQ at Cheltenham.' Although the People published the conversation in paraphrase rather than verbatim, it was recognisably the same as the Sun's. But it was buried on an inside page of the issue that carried the first full Camillagate transcript, so it passed almost unnoticed at the time.

The Sun gave the story a bigger splash - 'MI5 bugged Charles & Diana Bust-Up' - printed the transcript verbatim, and received a quite wonderful amount of media attention, including lead items on The World at One and News at Ten. Kenneth Clarke responded at first with a robust denial and a sneer about newspapers that believed B52 bombers could be found on the moon - a sneer he will be made to regret, because the Sun and Mirror do not like being confused with Sunday Sport - but later admitted that it did seem that the royals were being bugged, though not, he said, with the Government's knowledge or approval.

Even Buckingham Palace chipped in, taking the unprecedented step of checking the Waleses' diaries and announcing that they were not at Highgrove together in November or December when the alleged conversation allegedly took place. This was one of those classic denials that raised more questions than it answered - why couldn't they simply have asked the Waleses if they ever had such a conversation instead of quibbling about dates? But it was all grist to the media mill.

Meanwhile, James Whitaker, the Mirror's 'Man who really knows the Royals' gave a press conference to say that the Sun had pinched the transcript from his new book, Diana v Charles. He knew it, he said, because they had copied his punctuation errors. (This caused some irritation among his copy editors at Signet, who had laboriously changed the punctuation into house style, but they agreed that the Sun's punctuation was identical to theirs. Anyway, the Sun did not bother to deny that it had pinched Whitaker's text, though the method remains mysterious.) But one of the hacks at the conference asked Whitaker the question his editor must have been asking him, too: how come, if he had all these red- hot exclusives up his sleeve, he didn't publish them in the Mirror, instead of saving them for his book? Whitaker - who is known to the ratpack as Widow Twankey and to Princess Diana as the Great Red Tomato - was for once nonplussed and admitted: 'I agree one runs into a dilemma here . . .'

Say it again, James. I rang his Confidential phone line to see if he could shed any more light on the dilemma, but no. After spending a couple of expensive (48p) minutes playing 'Land of Hope and Glory' and plugging his book, he rambled on a bit about how GCHQ was always bugging the royals and dumping their stuff in a file called DI (for Discarded Information - sweet]) from whence his source obtained it. He said the bugging was still going on and he would get a new tape from GCHQ soon to prove it. (Tape, he later admitted, was a misnomer - he does not have any tapes - he meant transcript.) He finished breezily: 'Do buy my book - and please keep phoning. Thank you for your support.'

But what really made me prick up my ears was his casual statement that Charles Anson, the Queen's press secretary, admitted late last year that he was being bugged by MI5. What? Surely this was the biggest bugging exclusive of all time? Alas, when I phoned Mr Anson he said it was nonsense, and when I rang James Whitaker he said it was all a terrible mistake, caused by the hectic flurry of the last few days, and he meant Rupert Allason MP. Indeed, he corrected his phone-line tape immediately and wrote to Mr Anson to apologise, so my excitement was dashed.

But I fear that in all the fun of trying to discover how the alleged Highgrove conversation was obtained, one crucial matter has been overlooked - its content. It is strikingly different in style to both the Squidgy and Camilla tapes published earlier, and to the snatch of conversation between Diana and a woman friend published by the Sun and Mirror on Thursday. These conversations are all dense with references to travel arrangements and social engagements, which serve to fix them in time and place. But the Highgrove conversation is weirdly devoid of any 'placing' at all. The Prince (if it is the Prince) says at one point that they can't talk, 'Not here', but why not? If they are at home, in the middle of the night, as they seem to be, where better to talk? And whereas all the other royal tape conversations have the occasional disjunctions or cross-purposes of real conversation, this one is as smooth as butter . . . or as smooth as fiction, which I believe it is. Poor fiction, too - would Princess Diana really say: 'I don't want it to run on like some silly soap opera' or 'How dare you be so presumptuous?' I am inclined to think that some Hitler's diarist has got a little cottage industry going, making up tape transcripts to fool James Whitaker.

He is quite a gullible fellow, as we know, being the author of last September's Mirror headline 'Charles and Di: No Split Up' and, as he admitted at his own press conference: 'I may not be the brightest person in the world . . .' I think he's been had. But that doesn't prevent me believing that the other three tapes are genuine, and that MI5 routinely bugs the royals.