Petronella Wyatt

Give them a break

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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This has been the season of goodwill. Which, of course, it hasn't. I am sorry for stating the obvious but there is always less goodwill around at Christmas than any other time of the year.

The newspapers seem more vicious, more scandal-ridden and more aggressive than in spring, summer or autumn. This is principally because there aren't many real stories around as the politicians push off for their holidays. Nevertheless, one is often repelled by the hypocrisy of heartwarming yuletide tales juxtaposed with no-holds-barred attacks on those who cannot answer back.

I have been particularly disgusted by the persecution of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and their children. First, the media decided to try to boot the Kents out of their grace and favour apartment in Kensington Palace. The argument was that, as they performed no royal duties, why should the couple be a burden to the taxpayer?

As far as I am concerned, I have never sprung out of bed with indignation at the half a pence or less a year that I may pay to allow the Kents to keep their home. And the reason that they perform no 'official duties' is that the couple are not on the civil list - it is because of this that they are strapped for cash.

The Kents are in a Morton's Fork situation. If they took on high-profile jobs they would be accused of cashing in on their royal names. As they decline to do so, they are called spongers. It is a little-known fact, actually, because the papers refuse to print it, that Prince Michael spends 68 per cent of his time doing charitable work. He also speaks fluent Russian, which is no mean feat, and is head of the Anglo-Russian chamber of commerce, aiding trade with this country.

If the Queen promised the couple an apartment for life on their marriage that is a purely private matter. But the press weren't having any of it. Oh, no. So the Queen has been forced to fork out £125,000 per annum so the Kents may stay there for another seven years. This is no doubt due to pressure from courtiers who are terrified of yet more publicity after the Burrell fiasco.

Another thing, too. Kensington Palace has always been a royal residence but it is not only royals who live there. Employees of the Prince of Wales, and the Queen, also have apartments there. They, too, pay a minimal rent, a small percentage of their salaries. But who is suggesting that these people should contribute 'the full market rent'?

The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester do not perform royal duties yet they escape the media's rage. Why is it that only the Kents are treated so viciously, in particular the Princess? I hate to say it but could it be because the woman is a foreigner? Princess Michael is half-Hungarian and as a half-Hungarian myself I feel obliged to defend her. The press call her pushy, arrogant and selfish. This simply means that she has committed the unpardonable sin of not being English and is, therefore, outgoing, stylish, amusing and unwilling to be trampled on.

Compared to the rest of the royal family the Kents are paragons of virtue. They have never divorced each other, been involved in a sex scandal or any other, attacked other royals in public or been pictured looking sulky and self-pitying like the pitiful Prince of Wales. They have also brought up two charming children of whom they are quite rightly fiercely protective. Poor Frederick is subjected to cruel, insinuating articles which no boy in his early twenties should have to endure. So what if he does go to parties and gets a little drunk? Which lad of his age wouldn't? Which youngster, alas, has also not dabbled in drugs these days? As for one insinuation concerning alleged all-male parties at KP, one Kensington Palace insider, who is no friend to the Kents, told me this was nonsense.

The Kents should either be shoved on the civil list or left alone for the innocuous, good-natured people that they are. Here I speak at first hand. I have never been their houseguest so I neither expect nor desire any largesse as a result of this article. But I must dispel the misconceptions about Princess Michael's character.

When, just over four years ago, the first volume of my later father's diaries were published, I read to my horror that he had attacked about half of our friends and anyone else he had ever met. My mother, who had never even seen the diaries, was devastated as, one by one, these people dropped her when she most needed support. One of the few people who behaved with impeccable kindness and understanding was Princess Michael. She, too, had come under close fire from my dear papa. Yet she went out of her way to be friendly to my mother and myself both in private and in public. Her arms were placed around us if we met at parties, and dinner invitations came flooding in. I don't see her much these days as my work has often taken me abroad and when in London I have tended to go out less and less. But I cannot forget her warm-heartedness and ability to forgive, nor her sense of humour from which the rest of the royal family would certainly profit. I only hope the new year brings her a respite from the press.