22 MAY 1993, Page 7


he latest round of allegations of royal bugging and leaking has somehow been the most shocking. This is not because of the tone of the leaked conversation itself: even its originator, James Whitaker, admits in his book that it is of 'little moment'. Nor is it the fact that Mr Whitaker's book is being published by a respectable publishing house, Penguin. Nor is it the grotesque breach of privacy. It is simply that so many apparently intelligent people, as well as various Members of Parliament, should believe what they read in the Sun. This goes for a good many news editors on the posh papers, and — hook, line and sinker — for those of ITN and the BBC. It also goes for erudite columnists, such as the Times's Janet Daly. Now, as the author of the Hitler Diaries discovered, it doesn't take much to fool the Times, but it is still startling that one should be able to walk off the street with a couple of typed pages of dialogue (no tape in this case, remember) and Immediately be accorded the honour of an op-ed commentary in Britain's paper of record. Ms Daly launched her article by declaring that she found it 'hard to believe' that the supposed transcripts of a supposed row between the Prince and Princess of Wales was phoney. On what evidence? `The exchange that they record is simply too banal not to be authentic.' Waving aside the official Palace denial, she clinched her verification as follows: 'It would take a Harold Pinter to write a script as . . . completely convincing as this.' It must be a very long time since Ms Daly has seen a Pinter play. Myself, I believe that the transcript is entirely bogus. I don't believe the conversation ever took place. Admit- tedly, this is based on a bit of research rather than on a mere hunch, but I hope that doesn't render me unqualified to comment.

Despite the above, I confess to a secret liking for James Whitaker — 'the man who really knows the royals' — developed when we covered a royal tour together a few years back. He is unusual amongst the royal-watching fraternity (la creme de la scum, as they call themselves) in that he appears to regard the whole thing as a lark, not to be taken remotely seriously. Most of his colleagues know that they are a general- ly loathed species and assume an air of hos- tile moroseness to the outside world. Whitaker used to puncture the gloom by climbing on the bus each evening and bel- lowing, 'Well, chaps, what facts have we unearthed today?' He would then start making plucking motions into thin air. `Ah, I think I have one here . . . and there's another . • . and another!' On foreign trips he rapidly becomes almost as much of a celebrity as the royals themselves. Denied the chance of talking to Charles or Di, tele- vision stations would send limos and even helicopters round to Whitaker's hotel to whisk him off for non-stop interviews. Does he really know the royals? I doubt it, though he does seem to have a kind of rap- port with some of them. I once saw him approach the Princess of Wales and ask her if she would like to donate anything to a Daily Mirror auction for charity. Quick as a flash she answered, 'Yes, James. You stuffed and in a glass case.'

o famous is Whitaker now that he has his own 'confidential' phone line, which Mirror readers can use to catch up on all the latest royal gossip at a mere 48p per minute. At the weekend, at least half the message was devoted to a grovelling apolo- gy to the Queen's press secretary, Charles Anson, for some vile aspersion cast by Whitaker during a previous phone mes- sage. The retraction (at least 48 pence worth) was very Whitakerish. The error


had come about, he said candidly, 'because I stupidly misread a cutting'. It reminded him, he said, of his favourite journalistic adage, 'Never be adamant. You could be wrong.' Janet Daly should write it out 100 times.

The other journalistic diversion of the week has been the first episode of the Alan Clark diaries. Given their coruscating advance billing, they were, I thought, a bit on the tame side. Most of his venom was reserved for Mrs Thatcher's former cam- paign manager, Peter Morrison, for being useless, somnambulant and 'sozzled'. The existence of Clark's diaries has never been a secret. Urged on by him I even briefly kept one myself. Turning to it now, I find that the first entry records a lunch with Alan Clark, to which he brought along the very same Peter Morrison. Morrison emerges from the entry as slightly Whitak- erish, in the best sense of the word. He was at the time running the Manpower Services Commission. According to my note of the lunch, he told how he had expressed aston- ishment, when given the job by Mrs T. `Why me?' he demanded of her. 'And what is the MSC? . . . Do you know, I literally hadn't heard of it? I rather approve of it now, after three years.' Clark apparently looked bored during lunch, but came to life when we went back to Morrison's office at the Department of Employment, where Clark protested at the cost of living and Morrison showed us the inflatable model of Tony Benn that he kept in his drinks cabi- net. He also showed off his collection of clockwork toys, including a dumper truck which, said Morrison, 'I set off at Martians (civil servants) when they ask tricky questions'. I do hope he has kept a diary as well. I think it would be rather more entertaining.

My favourite thing on radio is Thought for the Day. I am usually just struggling into consciousness at that time of the morning and it is a useful intellectual exercise to spot the Metaphor of the Day in advance. If the speaker starts by mentioning a news story involving Gerald Ratner, for instance, you have to work out that the punchline will be: 'The Christian message is a jewel beyond price.' Last Saturday there was a Quaker, who took as his theme the Cup Final. This was disappointingly easy. 'Win- ning isn't everything,' I mumbled to myself, and tried to get back to sleep. Sure enough, the speaker announced at the end: 'Win- ning isn't everything.' But I kicked myself for missing the final epigram: 'Play by God's rules and everyone can win.' I must be slipping.