Earlier this week my dear friend the writer William Shawcross left a message on my answerphone. I am sure he will not mind if I repeat it. ‘Hi, Stephen, it’s William, your old friend. How are you? I have just heard some wonderful rumour today that you are going to use your entire column to denounce Associated Newspapers for its contemptible torture of both the Prince of Wales and George Smith. If this is true, I am so pleased. Congratulations, old bean.’ This message, it can be fairly said, is delivered in tones of jocular irony.
Nor do I think that Boris Johnson, the editor of this magazine, will mind if I repeat what he said to me on the same subject. ‘I must say,’ said Boris, ‘that I think the behaviour of the Mail on Sunday has been absolutely contemptible. But I don’t suppose you will want to say that, because you take the Daily Mail’s shilling.’ This is a reference to a column I write for that newspaper.
So here is a friend and my editor assuming that I share their views about the Mail on Sunday’s treatment of Prince Charles but am too craven to say so. It is not altogether flattering. I find myself sorely tempted to attack the Mail on Sunday simply to prove to these two that I am not the wimp they evidently think I am. The trouble is that I do not think I do share their view of what it is permissible to write about members of the royal family. William, of course, is the staunchest monarchist in England. All the same, the Mail on Sunday is by no means off the hook.
The Shawcross-Johnson view, which I suspect may be shared by a majority of The Spectator’s readers, is that the MoS intended to run a scurrilous story about Prince Charles which even it did not believe. The story is based on allegations made by George Smith, a former royal servant, whose mental stability is widely impugned. How, say the critics, can a newspaper possibly conceive of publishing the uncorroborated allegations of one man whose word cannot be depended on? They seem to have little problem with the injunction which, most unusually, was placed on the MoS after Michael Fawcett, another former royal servant, applied to a High Court judge.
If this view were correct — that the MoS cynically intended to ventilate scurrilous allegations which it knew to be false — then the critics would surely be right. It is no defence for the newspaper to say that the allegations were already widely known in media circles, and it was merely repeating them. Publication would obviously have given some credence to what had been widely regarded as baseless rumours. The only respectable defence for the newspaper would be to argue that there was reason to believe that the allegations were true, and it was therefore in the public interest to publish them.
Are they true? The critics scoff at the idea. They say that they are utterly preposterous. I am not sure how they can be so sure. It is not, after all, as though what has been alleged is illegal or necessarily aberrational. I would guess it goes on all the time. When I hear the critics huffing and puffing, I can’t help remembering how in 1992 similar voices dismissed Andrew Morton’s book about the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, as tittle-tattle. Sir Max Hastings has written that, when he was editor of the Daily Telegraph, no mention was made of Mr Morton’s book for six months because it was believed to be so scurrilous. Later Sir Max conceded that it was largely accurate.
This, as I understand it, is the recent chain of events. About a year ago the Mail on Sunday put George Smith’s allegations to Sir Michael Peat, Prince Charles’s private secretary. According to a Mail on Sunday source, he denied them ‘in a histrionic way’. Well he might, if they are untrue. Recently, after the publication of the book by Paul Burrell, Diana’s former butler, the newspaper interviewed Mr Smith at much greater length. It then put his more detailed allegations to palace press officials, who neither denied nor confirmed them. The next day came Mr Fawcett’s application for an injunction. The Mail on Sunday claims that if it had received an unequivocal denial, it would not have sought to publish the allegations. Whether we believe this or not, the absence of a clear and immediate denial seems odd.
My impression is that when it was contemplating publication nearly two weeks ago, the Mail on Sunday had qualms about the story. It may not have made a very strong case in front of the judge. The paper now seems more confident. It thinks it has sources who can corroborate Mr Smith’s allegations without their evidence being dismissed as hearsay. The newspaper, in fact, seems to believe what it may not have believed two or three weeks ago — that the allegations against Prince Charles are probably true.
Even then some people will say: so what? Those of a more liberal disposition will argue that whatever Prince Charles may do in private is his own affair. The staunch monarchists will contend — including my dear friend William Shawcross, perhaps — that even if the allegations were true, they should not be repeated if the monarchy were thereby harmed. Both views surely ignore the real world. In order to justify its behaviour, the Mail on Sunday need only establish that the story is true. If it or others can do that, the paper is vindicated. If it or others cannot, it will have to hang its head in shame.
Clive Soley is not necessarily my favourite Labour MP. He has campaigned for statutory press controls. When Cherie Blair was in trouble a year ago over those Bristol flats and the Australian con man, Peter Foster, he leapt to her defence. But on this occasion, at least, he seems to be in the right.
On Tuesday he made an extraordinary allegation under parliamentary privilege. According to Mr Soley, Rupert Murdoch’s News International paid £500,000 to a former employee to silence allegations of serious sexual harassment against Stuart Higgins, a former editor of the Sun. Needless to say, if Mr Higgins had been a City trader rather than the paper’s editor, the Sun would have offered a blow-by-blow account of his behaviour. As it was, it has said or written nothing, and even now pompously refuses to confirm Mr Soley’s allegations. Whenever their secrets are investigated, media companies invariably behave worse than anyone else.
Mr Soley claims also that he has been threatened in a letter from Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun. He had embarked on a correspondence with the office of the chief executive of News International when out of the blue came a short letter from Ms Wade, which pointedly suggested that in matters of sexual harassment the Parliamentary Labour party (of which Mr Soley had been chairman) had much to hide. Whether this constitutes a threat is debatable; but before she writes letters to MPs which are open to such an interpretation, Ms Wade should acquaint herself with the law of parliamentary privilege.