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From the Crown Jewels to Cubic Zirconia

Britannia rules the scandal sheets.

November 14, 2002|John Hiscock | John Hiscock is a Los Angeles-based British journalist who writes for the London Daily Telegraph.

As royal scandals go, it makes Henry VIII's multiple marriages and King Edward VIII's decision to give up the throne for an American divorcee look like mere peccadilloes.

Like a giant tsunami, it started innocuously enough, just after Paul Burrell was cleared of charges that he stole memorabilia from the home of Princess Diana, where he had served as butler. Burrell, whose trial was underway, was saved by Queen Elizabeth II's belated memory of a conversation the two had soon after Diana's death in 1997.

So -- perhaps smarting from his long ordeal in the dock, perhaps realizing that the clock was ticking on his 15 minutes of fame -- Burrell opted to spill the secrets of Diana's life and extramarital affairs in an English tabloid newspaper in return for a reported fee of $500,000.

Each day since, the British public has been learning new details about how "the people's princess" smuggled boyfriends into her home at Kensington Palace in the trunk of her car; how she greeted one of them wearing only a fur coat and high heels and how Prince Philip wrote her letters that were more vicious than the death threats she received.

All good salacious fun for eager sensation-seekers and one of the jollier, it seemed, of a series of scandals that have plagued the House of Windsor during the past decade.

Yet Burrell's seamy tales of what the butler saw have opened a Pandora's box containing much more serious accusations of debauchery, moral bankruptcy and chicanery, exposing how rotten and corrupt things are at Buckingham Palace. With every sordid revelation, there is more fodder for the anti-royalists and more calls for independent investigation.

Never before has there been such a breakdown of trust in a once-honored institution. If the queen's sudden intervention was meant to keep Burrell from revealing palace secrets from the witness box, it failed miserably because he is now doing so in far more detail in the pages of a newspaper.

At the latest count, the charge sheet includes allegations that Buckingham Palace attempted to cover up the gay rape of a servant by one of Prince Charles' close aides and that the prince's personal assistant, Michael Fawcett, is known as "Fawcett the Fence" because he allegedly sells off gifts given to Charles at shops around London, keeping up to 20% of the proceeds as his cut.

As one member of Parliament put it, it is bad enough that Prince Charles goes abroad at public expense and receives valuable gifts; the last thing anyone expects is for him to come back, have them sold off or pawned and then pocket the proceeds.

Adding to the scabrous mix is the so-called "rape tape," a mysterious missing recording said to have been made by Diana and containing the raped servant's story of his ordeal. Police who searched Burrell's home after a tip-off failed to find the recording.

Burrell is paying a price for his revelations: The British tabloids who did not get his memoir have turned on him with a vengeance, uncovering further details of "gay romps" with palace servants and implicating Burrell himself in some of the alleged goings-on. Burrell is now in the United States, giving television interviews.

Prince Charles has promised an internal inquiry into some of the allegations, but observers believe that will merely add to suspicions of a cover-up. This is no longer about a former butler's tell-all tattling. It is about the future of the British monarchy -- and whether it has one.

Increasingly, there are rumblings from the public and Labor members of Parliament that most countries get by without a monarch and, indeed, the U.S. has thrived and still attracts tourists 200 years after getting rid of its ties to royalty. So why shouldn't Britain?

The whole unsavory affair confirms what many have long suspected about the increasingly dysfunctional royal family: It is not even fit to run a fish and chip shop.

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