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Does press have it out for prince?

Sex scandal is just the latest salvo fired at Charles by a media that misses Diana.

November 14, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — It was back to royal duties as usual this week for Charles, Prince of Wales. Wednesday: a commemoration of war dead at a veterans hospital in London. Thursday: the unveiling of a health program called "Enhancing the Healing Environment." Then off to the English countryside today to cut a ribbon on new offices for the National Benevolent Institution.

Not much news in that now, is there? Indeed, the British media barely lifted an eye to the prince's schedule of ceremonial do-goodism this week. Laying poppy wreaths to dead soldiers offers little pizazz next to the story the press is really chasing these days: lurid gossip about the prince's sex life.

It's not the first time the British media have gotten into a lather over Prince Charles' private life. When the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales imploded in nasty public mud-slinging, many British reporters were sympathetic to Diana, who often fed them anecdotes that made her side look good.

But there is an edge to the current bout of coverage that suggests the media may hold a deeper grudge against the prince than previously suspected. Some observers believe they smell an agenda: to force the prince to renounce the throne.

Tabloid trouble just seems to stalk Charles. "It is proving impossible -- and God knows I've tried -- to get through to convince the public that Charles is anything other than a wicked man," says Penny Junor, a biographer of the prince who is part of the sympathetic minority.

The current storm broke this month over word that a newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, was about to publish an interview with George Smith, a former servant to the prince. For more than a year, there has been gossip in royal circles about just what it was that Smith says he saw when he walked into Charles' bedroom one morning years ago. A "compromising sexual incident" is the euphemism the British media have used to describe what was allegedly transpiring between the prince and Michael Fawcett, his valet.

They can't be more specific because Fawcett sought -- and got -- a court injunction on Nov. 1 against reporting details of the alleged act.

Smith is -- even by the Mail's account -- a dubious source. A Falklands War veteran who acknowledges having troubles with mental illness and alcoholism, Smith previously claimed to be the victim of a gay rape in the royal household, a charge police investigated and dismissed for lack of evidence. But mystery begets speculation.

And ever since the Mail was gagged by the courts, other British media have gone through contortions of innuendo to express what it was the prince and the valet were supposedly up to. The public has joined this parlor game, its curiosity fueled when the prince last week dispatched Sir Michael Peat, his private secretary, to face the TV cameras.

A visibly uncomfortable Peat denied the story, calling it "risible" without explaining exactly what it was the prince insisted was so preposterous.

Peat is an accountant who was brought in to Charles' office last year to clean up the prince's chaotic finances. But he has the television presence of, well, an accountant, and the reaction to his appearance was mostly bad.


Media hunger

Mark Bolland, the prince's former media advisor who now writes a newspaper column, dismissed Peat's performance as "patronizing." In one of his columns, he recounted a phone conversation in which Peat asked him whether the prince was bisexual. "Emphatically NOT," Bolland claims to have answered. Peat denied ever posing such a question. " 'Bisexual' is a word I don't think I can ever remember using," he said.

No matter. The media cat was among the royal pigeons. "Is Charles Bisexual?" the mass-selling tabloid News of the World demanded in big letters Sunday, keeping Bolland's "emphatically not" in much smaller type. By this week, London radio stations were asking whether the British public would accept a bisexual king. Suddenly, the press seemed to have a story that had gone from the salacious to the serious. It turned a story about scandal into a story with constitutional implications.

"A republican wave? I hardly think so," says Hugo Vickers, a British biographer of royalty. "The nub of the matter is that there are too many newspapers working in a very small country."

Vickers says the media simply have a hunger to tear down public figures, that they are caught up in "a syndrome of packing so many things against somebody that eventually the person thinks it's no longer worth continuing in public life."

But why Charles? Why are the media training fire on a man cast into the stifling role of heir to the throne, yet who seems to fulfill his public duties tirelessly?

Certainly, the veterans seemed to appreciate his visit this week -- the prince appearing suitably somber and striking that iconic pose: hands clasped behind back, upper body leaning precariously forward as if he were hard of hearing.

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