Hearing a so-called “Royal expert” talking on Sky News the other day about Prince Harry’s decision to take the Mail on Sunday to court for publishing a private letter from his wife, the Duchess of Sussex, to her father, I was filled with rage.
What she appeared to be saying was that the Royal Family are public figures, largely subsidised by the taxpayer, who should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other institution in a democratic society. Fair enough so far. But she went on to say that the Mail on Sunday and other newspapers were therefore entitled to say anything they liked about the Royals and it was a breach of democracy to challenge them.
As someone who has fought for press freedom for more than 40 years and appeared, for my pains, in pretty well every court in the land – from a magistrate’s court to the High Court to the House of Lords – I was outraged that the principles of democracy should be invoked to justify a blatant breach of privacy.
I’m sure Prince Harry would agree about freedom of the press, and about the other point she made that the press, on the whole, give the Royals a good press, especially the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their recent visit to Africa. But he would doubtless add that there have to be limits – and, in his view, that limit was crossed by the Mail on Sunday’s publication of a private letter that caused his wife hurt.
Publishing confidential material of that sort can only be justified if the information raised issues of genuine public importance. That may be a matter for the court to decide. But it seems to me that Meghan’s troubled relationship with her father hardly counts as that. I also think that some of the press’s treatment of Meghan has been cruel and vindictive, with elements of racism and anti-Americanism.
Thinking on these matters, I looked at an article I wrote in The Observer 33 years ago, when Princess Anne attacked the tabloids in much the same way as Prince Harry is now. Here are a few extracts to show that nothing has changed:- “After all, there’s nothing new about this claptrap from the tabloids. King George VI is said to have kept a scrapbook called “Things My Daughters Never Did.” So why all this fuss now?
“The answer, I suspect, is that the Royal soap opera has now reached such a pitch of public of interest that the boundary between fact and fiction has long been lost sight of by papers in cut-throat circulation wars. As the Queen’s embattled Press secretary put it: ‘They are playing a circulation war game, and they will exaggerate as much as they can in order to inflate their stories on the front page.’
“It is not just that some papers don’t check their facts or accept denials: they don’t really care if the stories are true or not. Because the Royal Family doesn’t normally answer back, they assume they can get away with anything.
“What seems to be happening now is that the Royals, especially the younger ones, are beginning to challenge that assumption. Not, as in the past, by crudely turning hoses on photographers (Prince Philip and later Prince Andrew) or telling reporters to “naff off” (Princess Anne), but by snapping back at editors themselves.”
Or, in Prince Harry’s case, going to the courts. I hope he wins.
Police heads must roll
At last, official wheels are beginning to turn on the manifest failures of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into the lies by the paedophile Carl Beech that damaged the lives of senior public figures and the reputation of some, like Sir Edward Heath, who were dead.
It isn’t just the police investigation itself that was badly flawed. The flaws in Operation Midland– 43 of them – were identified some time ago in the report commissioned by the Met itself from a retired judge, Sir Richard Henriques. This report was heavily redacted, ostensibly because it might prejudice the coming trial of Carl Beech, the police’s only source of the false allegations.
What the Met’s censorship of the report also hid from public view were other matters that would embarrass the police. The chief of these has just been revealed: the fact that Ben Emmerson, the lead QC in the Government’s comprehensive sex abuse inquiry, interviewed Beech in 1915 and told the police that, in his view, Beech’s claims of being raped and tortured were “inherently implausible” and had “the ring of outlandish fabrication.”
Emmerson also offered legal advice to the police on how to go about exposing his lies. The police ignored this advice and proceeded to investigate the allegations by, among other things, ham-fistedly raiding the houses of those Beech accused: Field Marshall Bramall, former head of the Armed Forces, Leon Brittan, the former Home Secretary, and Harvey Proctor, the former MP.
The Henriques report also says that the search warrants for these police raids were obtained falsely by saying that Beech’s evidence was “consistent” when in fact it was riddled with contradictions and by failing to inform the judge that serious doubts had been raised about its reliability.
The new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has now asked the Inspector of Constabulary to examine the police handling of Operation Midland and the findings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which cleared all the police officers involved of any misconduct.
The officer in charge of Operation Midland, Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse, is now head of operations at the National Crime Agency, a British version of the FBI. His heavy-handed pursuit of senior Establishment figures - on evidence that he had already been told was false – not only demands that he be called to account for the inquiry’s many blunders, but also for the personal damage he caused to innocent people, His conduct also raises doubts about his suitability for his present position.
The other senior policeman in the frame, whose responsibility needs to examined, is the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who retired early when the questions started being asked about Operation Midland. This is the man who ordered Operation Midland and presumably monitored its progress.
Some seriously bad decision were clearly made on his watch. As I wrote at the time, his swift transition to the House of Lords was premature and ill-judged.
Now that the right calls are being made, one can only hope that police errors will be acknowledged and reformed, and that justice will be done to the real victims of this botched police inquiry – the innocent men whose names were dragged through the mud.