The Burrell affair illustrates how much the press has changed over the past 20 or 30 years, and how powerful it has become. Not very long ago the majority of newspapers would have given the Queen the benefit of the doubt in such a matter. As it was, only the Daily Telegraph jumped unhesitatingly to her defence. It simply did not occur to the paper that she might have been at fault in coming forward at the eleventh hour with information that stopped Paul Burrell’s trial, and so it naturally looked for others to blame.
In this it was alone, which certainly would not have been the case 20 years ago. The Times, which once could have been counted on to mount the Establishment defence, asked several awkward questions which the royal family may have regarded as unseemly. So did the Sunday Times. The ardently monarchist Daily Mail could not conceal its dismay. More predictably, the Guardian, Independent, Daily Mirror, Sun and News of the World were critical. Of course, they sprayed their fire around in different directions. The News of the World is close to Mark Bolland, Prince Charles’s spin doctor. So it was no surprise that it judged the Prince of Wales ‘wise’, while damning the rest of the royal family, its advisers and the Spencer clan.
The effect of the coverage was to damage the monarchy in general. We saw how wafer-thin, in fact, is the support which even the Queen enjoys in much of the press, which only months ago was lamenting over the bier of the Queen Mother. Even papers which do not have a republican agenda embraced the argument that the Queen should not be above the law, and should be required to appear in court like the rest of us. It did not matter that the constitutional argument was a red herring, as Melanie Phillips brilliantly pointed out in the Daily Mail. ‘The Queen’s meeting with Mr Burrell,’ she wrote, ‘was not concealed because [the Queen] was beyond the reach of justice. How could it be, since it was the Queen who eventually made the encounter known?’ Basing their arguments on a single case which is unlikely ever to be repeated, newspapers which should know better suggested that prosecutions should now be brought in the name of the state.
Their eagerness to attack, and the sole support of the Daily Telegraph, should be cause for concern for members of the royal family. Equally worrying for them is the press’s publication of personal information. We all remember the famous ‘Squidgy tapes’, which revealed the most intimate bedtime conversations between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. In the Burrell affair, first the News of the World and then the other tabloids have published lurid allegations not aired in open court, presumably because someone associated with one of the legal teams has blabbed. It is suggested that Prince Charles’s valet had to hold his specimen bottle for him to pee into; that Diana, Princess of Wales sent out for pornographic magazines for her son, William; and that her lovers were smuggled into Kensington Place in the back of Mr Burrell’s car. Other stories, touched on by Simon Heffer in this issue, refer to highly unusual homosexual goings-on. Of course, some of these allegations may have been partly inspired by Mr Burrell’s overactive mind, but their effect is to make both the Prince and the Princess appear loopy and dysfunctional. By comparison, Mr Burrell’s own revelations in the Daily Mirror, some of which may also be fanciful, seem tame.
The Burrell affair suggests to me that, if nothing changes, the writing may sooner or later be on the wall for the royal family. Servants such as Mr Burrell can no longer be relied on to keep secrets. People associated with legal teams leak stories to the tabloids. Meanwhile the press in general is only too happy to gun for members of the royal family whenever the slightest opportunity presents itself. How on earth can they survive in such circumstances? An obvious solution is for them to behave like the respectable middle classes, which is what many people once wrongly thought they did. Prince Charles should hold his own specimen bottle. Lovers should be kept out of car boots. Fourteen-year-old boys should not be given pornographic magazines by their mothers. Of course, some or all of these things may not have taken place. But that only illustrates the point. Even if the Windsors were capable of living lives of middle-class rectitude, that might not suffice. In the end, they are what the press says they are, and they behave in the way the press says they do.
The News of the World’s investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, has been hailed by his paper as an ace reporter for his role in foiling the alleged plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her two children. Good old Mazher. He certainly won’t qualify, however, for any prizes for lucid writing. His account in Sunday’s News of the World was tortured and confusing. Perhaps this was because Mazher was not being entirely open. Those few who bothered to try to understand his piece will have discovered that the proposal to kidnap Victoria Beckham was still very much at the planning stage.
Around lunchtime last Saturday police swooped on a gang of East Europeans in London’s Docklands. Casual readers may have got the impression that the gang were about to kidnap Victoria but, in Mazher’s words, ‘the gang believed we were going to pay £45,000 for arts treasures they had stolen’. This was because a News of the World reporter – presumably Mazher himself, though it is not wholly clear – posed as a crook who might be interested in buying the treasures. This reporter and/or another – again it is not absolutely clear – had earlier overheard members of the gang talking about their kidnap plan. According to Mazher, the gang had taken a look, accompanied by News of the World reporters, at ‘Beckingham Palace’, where Victoria and David Beckham reside.
If this case holds up, a court of law will have to decide how advanced these alleged plans were. Let us be generous to Mazher and assume they were very advanced. In that case, would it not have been helpful to the Beckhams to have been told while the planning was going on, and before the arrests last Saturday? If News of the World reporters had learnt that a gang was going to kidnap the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, and his charming wife Wendi, I am sure they would have let the intended victims know. So why not in this instance? Either Mazher did not tell the Beckhams because they had very little or nothing to fear – and so there is not much of a story. Or they had something to fear and should have been told – in which case they may have been unnecessarily put at risk so that Mazher could get his scoop, with the police performing for the News of the World.