The dirty tricksters have turned on Di

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK I predicted a dirty tricks campaign against the Princess of Wales but I didn't foresee quite the chainsaw extravaganza that would ensue. The Star claimed she was not a virgin on marriage, the London Evening Standard said she made secret visits to James Gilbey's Norfolk 'lovenest', the Sun suggested a liaison with Major James Hewitt (and is being sued for its pains), while the Mirror had her buying a pounds 3,000 whirlpool bath at the taxpayers' expense. Oh yes, and Anthony Burgess pronounced her 'common'. It seemed every courtier in the Palace had been ordered to dream up three new Diana smears before breakfast. It was a wonder no one linked her name to Frank Bough.

By midweek the Sun was asking plaintively: 'What on earth's going on?' Keen royalists such as Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Knight, who only want to buy royal stories to keep them in their safes, must have wondered if they were coming or going. All those months the Sun sat on the Squidgy tape, loyally refusing to publish it, the Palace was going demented trying to get the story out. Incidentally, the Sun on Monday quietly altered its account of how it obtained the tape and admitted that Cyril Reenan, the Listening Bank Manager, was not the only source. They were sent a second, fuller version anonymously after the Morton book was published. The Sun's comment on the Palace's reaction to publication was almost the most interesting revelation of the week: 'Why didn't the Palace rush to the defence of the public's favourite Royal?' it asked. 'If they had really wanted to protect Princess Diana, they could have threatened the Sun with legal action. They could have spoken on a confidential basis to the editor or senior executives, in the way that Downing Street and senior police officers do . . . Instead they let Di sweat it out.'

This is the first admission I've seen in print that the tabloids are willing to take a 'steer' from the Palace. The public always likes to believe that the Royal Family and press are at permanent loggerheads whereas in fact they're as mutually dependent as a shepherd and his sheep. The trouble with the current situation is that the shepherd has apparently run amok and turned into a wolf. The tabloids have no idea what they're meant to do, even if they felt inclined to do it.

By Thursday, the Palace seemed to be getting a grip, with Dickie Arbiter, the Waleses' press officer, officially denying the Norfolk 'lovenest' story, but of course that only made his silence over the Squidgy tape more glaring.

The tape was temporarily off-air on Thursday afternoon following a complaint to the telephone watchdog but the Sun then selflessly moved it to an 071 number. I say selflessly because it has lost oodles of dosh by running its hotline - foreign publishers have been able to pinch the tape for free instead of paying vast syndication fees. Apparently it is being reproduced around the world - the German version interestingly translates Squidgy as 'little squid'.

Another story that the Palace stirred itself to deny was the 'Dear Bill' letter on Buckingham Palace notepaper which the Mirror printed on Monday, having cribbed it from the New York Post, which received it anonymously. The letter, dated June, appeared to be from one Palace insider to another (probably Dickie Arbiter to Sir William Heseltine, the Queen's former private secretary) and suggested countering the Morton book by leaking Di-damaging material to Lady Colin Campbell for the new edition of her Diana in Private which, it said, 'was uncannily accurate'. It also mentioned in passing that both Andrew Morton's and Lady Colin Campbell's phones were bugged. While the Palace branded the letter a fake, all the tabloids busily set about rubbishing Lady Colin - the Evening Standard even dug up her ex-husband to say he was drunk when he married her in 1974 and didn't know that she had spent her childhood as a boy. Incidentally, I don't know why Lady C C bothers to write about the Princess of Wales when her own life story is so riveting.

Then there was the mysterious business of the dog that didn't bark in the night: I mean the supposed, alleged, so-called (OK, lawyers, happy now?) pictures of the Princess with Major James Hewitt which the tabloids promised 10 days ago. Everyone expected the News of the World to publish them last Sunday, but instead it ran some 10-year-old photographs of Diana and Charles kissing and cuddling soon after their marriage. Their provenance was never explained, nor their purpose, but they presumably came from the Palace and were meant to discredit Andrew Morton's claim that Diana was unhappy from day one of her marriage.

By Friday, the tabloids were in utter disarray. James Whitaker claimed in the Mirror: 'Charles and Di: No Split Up' while the Mail described a series of meetings at the Palace earlier this week when Di's close protection officers were questioned about her movements ('Diana and six secret dates') and said that Special Branch and MI5 were also spying on her. This sounds like divorce - it is difficult to see how Prince Charles can stay married to a wife whose fidelity is being questioned - but on the other hand, the Waleses are still booked to go to Seoul together in November. I wonder if beheading is a possibility? Under the Treason Act, 1351, it is still a capital offence to violate the king's wife, or the wife of the sovereign's eldest son (which must give Major Hewitt's libel action a particular urgency) but I don't think there is any statute covering Squidgy phone calls.

AND FINALLY, duff headline of the week, from the Mail: 'I won't be beaten, says Mrs Frank Bough'.