What the Butler Saw

What the Butler Saw

What the Butler Saw

What the foreign papers are saying.
Nov. 12 2003 8:12 PM

What the Butler Saw

And why the English press can't talk about it.

One topic has dominated British conversations over the last 10 days, but the English papers can't say exactly what it is. As Canada's Globe and Mail put it: "The stories just keep on coming, day in and day out. And yet the public remains singularly uninformed."

At issue is former royal servant George Smith's allegation that several years ago he witnessed a "sexual incident" involving Prince Charles (originally described as a "senior royal") and a servant. The Mail on Sunday intended to publish the claim in a tell-all "what the footman saw" feature Nov. 2, but the day before publication, Michael Fawcett, a friend and former valet/personal assistant of the heir to the throne's—and said by the Observer to be the man who had been named as the servant with whom Charles was caught—obtained a court order barring the MoS from publishing the story. The injunction, which is still in force, prohibits the press from publishing details of the accusation in England and Wales, though some papers have danced very close to the fire with covers like the News of the World's "Is Charles Bisexual?" (This BBC site outlines the legal twists and turns, and this column from the Independent provides still more background.)

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June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

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A Guardian piece satirized the circumlocutions the press has resorted to: "A person who cannot be named for legal reasons has secretly denied participating in an alleged act that cannot be described for legal reasons. But you know who we mean." Earlier this week, the London Evening Standard splashed "Why Charles Allegations Can't Be True" across its front page. Inside, still another former royal valet, Simon Solari, told the paper the accusation—which it described in the following, not terribly euphemistic terms: "former palace orderly George Smith publicly claimed that he witnessed an incident involving Charles after taking breakfast to the Prince"—couldn't possibly be true because Smith was too low on the palace totem pole to wait on Charles, and besides the prince doesn't take his breakfast in bed.

Despite the injunction, it seems likely that most Britons know the nature of the claim. Although papers in England and Wales were forced to resort to euphemisms and allusions, newspapers in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and elsewhere were able to reveal the allegation. Anyone with access to the Internet could fire up foreign newspapers' Web sites to find the forbidden details of the story—stories like this one from the Sydney Morning Herald, for example. Still, even publications based outside the court's jurisdiction exercised great care. Scotland's Sunday Herald, which printed the accusation, kept the story off its Web site—the site's front page announced, "Due to a court injunction, our coverage of the Prince Charles allegations is not available online." Even press roundups were subject to restriction. The Independent's Monday wrap-up included a censored header from the Sunday Mirror, "Not and Never ******," and the Indy's explanation that the "headline cannot be repeated in its entirety, since it—and the accompanying story—push the boundaries of the injunction to the very limits." (The headline has been changed, but this appears to be the Sunday Mirror story in question.)

On Tuesday, Spain's El País reported that most foreign papers—especially Spanish and Italian dailies—have been kept off English and Welsh newsstands to protect citizens from seeing the rumor in print. Wednesday's Le Monde said that since last Saturday, distributors have prevented 16 foreign papers from circulating in England and Wales, fearing the huge fines they could be subject to if held liable for violating the legal injunction. Seven thousand copies of Le Monde intended for distribution in England and Wales were withdrawn Tuesday. (In an unusual move, Le Monde included an English version of the story on its Web site.)

It's hard to find anyone who believes the rumor—the Daily Telegraph declared: "Everyone can see it's drivel. The claim being made about the Prince of Wales … comes from a man with a history of mental illness and alcohol problems, who has made sensationalist accusations before. … Yet, incredibly, the media has given space—and credence—to his tawdry tale for eight days." Elsewhere, in a story that outlines some of the complicated background to the royal mess, the paper claimed Charles is "the victim of a media vendetta" designed to sell newspapers or, perhaps, to bring down the monarchy. The tabloid Sun—Britain's largest-circulation paper—dismissed the rumor as "ridiculous," adding: "The Sun does not believe a word of Smith's allegations. Nor can we find anyone else who does." Still, it worried that "the survival of the monarchy could be at stake." The lefty Daily Mirror said, "Hardly anyone can believe the wild story going around. … But that is not the point. What matters is the complete chaos at the heart of the royal family."

Charles doesn't appear to be popular, though he has his champions. Writing in the Evening Standard, A.N. Wilson bemoaned Charles' ill fortune: "Prince Charles is a good man who has done wonderful things with his Prince's Trust [charity] and with his outspoken defence of good standards in architecture, agriculture and education. The truth is he fails the Napoleon test—he is unlucky. Everything he does turns to dust, and in the present instance, alas, to ribald farce." An op-ed in the Independent declared: "This is not Prince Charles's fault. That noble, complex and embattled figure has made only one serious mistake in his life: the proposal of marriage to Lady Diana Spencer." The Sunalso defended Charles, sort of, offering a back-handed defense of the prince: "It is time to leave Charles alone. He has many failings, it is true. He can be aloof and the public even today find it difficult to see why he cheated on Princess Diana. He also has a cranky reputation for talking to his plants." However, a columnist in the conservative Daily Express observed, "If Charles were loved by his future subjects, none of this would have happened."

The nature of the accusation brought some papers' antediluvian view of sexuality to the fore. The Sun said the rumors couldn't possibly be true because "Charles may be blue-blooded, but he is also a red-blooded male. Just ask Camilla." Another vaguely homophobic sentiment was present in a Times op-ed that noted: "It used to be argued that [the royal family] provided value for money, pulling in tourists to gawp outside Buckingham Palace, but that contention no longer seems likely. The furore surrounding the Prince of Wales may be driving internet traffic but if it were to attract any tourists, then they would be those we would rather stayed at home." A commentary in the Independent praised Charles for his calmness in the face of the scandals: "[M]aybe it is because Prince Charles is socially liberal enough to understand that these allegations are not, despite the horrified hype behind them, very dangerous at all. Perhaps he understands that nowadays only hate-driven homophobes even consider hints of gay sexual activity to be any sort of slur."