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Criticism Spurs Windsors to End Silence, Isolation

Britain: Family leaves seclusion to acknowledge public's grief. Queen is to address the nation today.

September 05, 1997|Wm. D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Stung by accusations that the royal family has been indifferent to Britain's searing pain over the death of Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday scheduled an extraordinary national broadcast and Buckingham Palace loosened its protocol straitjacket.

After days of silence and isolation, the royals were everywhere Thursday. The queen, her husband, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the young princes, William and Harry, appeared at the gates of their Scottish castle to quietly inspect flowers left by mourners there.

Queen Elizabeth's youngest sons, Princes Andrew and Edward, appeared in London at St. James' Palace, where Diana's coffin lies in a chapel. The two mingled with crowds waiting in hours-long lines to sign books of condolence there.

Thursday's royal activity appeared to have been counseled by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. As criticism grew, the prime minister had come out swinging for the family Wednesday night. "They are trying to make all the practical arrangements of the funeral at the same time as comforting the two boys. They share our grief very much, and we should respect that," Blair said.

Thursday morning, though, Britain's four populist tabloids all published blistering attacks on the royal silence in what one observer called "some of the strongest criticisms of the monarch voiced during her [44-year] reign."

"Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?" demanded the Sun. "Show Us You Care," said the Express. "Your People Are Suffering. Speak to Us Ma'am," said the Mirror.

It was a blustery comeback by sensationalist tabloids that had been an insatiable market for paparazzi pictures of Diana but had not seriously addressed the issue of privacy since her death.

The queen's spokesman, Geoffrey Crawford, made a rare television statement Thursday, after Blair had conferred with Prince Charles.

"The queen has asked me to say that the royal family has been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country's sorrows at the tragic death of the princess of Wales," Crawford said. "The princess was a much loved national figure, but she was also a mother whose sons miss her deeply. Prince William and Prince Harry themselves want to be with [their] father and grandparents at this time in the quiet haven of Balmoral.

"As their grandmother, the queen is helping the princes come to terms with their loss as they prepare themselves for the public ordeal of mourning their mother with the nation on Saturday."

In addition to deciding to address the nation, the queen moved up her return to London, initially scheduled for Saturday morning, to today. No time was given for the speech, which will be an unusual exception to her traditional two speeches a year.

In another gesture, responding to criticism at the absence of a flag over Buckingham Palace all week, a spokesman for the palace said the queen, in a break with protocol, had ordered the Union Jack to fly there at half-staff during the funeral Saturday morning.

All flags in Britain and those outside foreign embassies here have flown at half-staff all week, but there has been only a bare pole at the palace, which has been widely seen as symbolic of a remote royal family with whom Diana fought repeatedly before breaking from it entirely.

As a matter of long-standing practice, the Royal Standard flies over the palace when the sovereign is in residence. When the monarch is absent, no flag flies. It is the royal family's equivalent of a store sign saying "open" or "closed."

The Daily Mail was not satisfied: "If protocol cannot bow to public grief by flying a Union Jack at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, then we say that protocol is a crass courtier," the newspaper said.

Late Thursday, invitations to the funeral were withdrawn from the editors of all four tabloids at the request of the Spencer family, Britain's Channel 4 reported.

The queen's implicit "excuse me" did not appear to have overcome popular resentment. Thursday night, British television news shows aired film of a procession of mourners, nearly all of whom said grudgingly, "It's about time."

In France on Thursday, official sources confirmed that the driver of the car in which Princess Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed, died lacked police authorization to operate the vehicle.

The Mercedes-Benz sedan was rented by the Hotel Ritz from a private Paris company, Etoile-Limousine. Quoting an "authorized source," the Agence France-Presse news agency said the Mercedes was supposed to be chauffeured only by someone who has the same special permit that taxi drivers in the French capital must possess.

Henri Paul, deputy chief of security at the Ritz, didn't have one and is not on the list of permit holders maintained by police, the source told AFP. A post-mortem blood test has already found that Paul had more than three times the legal level of alcohol in his blood when he, Diana and Fayed died.

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