The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 11, 2003
Lead Article

The diary that could destroy a government
Manohar Malgonkar

NOVEMBER, 2002. In Italy, Mount Etna in violent eruption plus an earthquake which destroyed a school building in a village, resulting in the death of 26 children. In London, a meeting of Commonwealth leaders resolves not to re-admit Pakistan to its membership. The usual carnage in Israel and Palestine, and the Sharron government hanging on to power by a thread. In Sydney, a row about Muslims being ruffed up by hooligans. In the U.S. mass meetings to protest against an invasion of Iraq. In Pakistan democracy-under-dictatorship still in birth-pangs. In Kashmir, a new government.

So which of these red-hot stories did the BBC choose for top billing for its TV and radio bulletins?

None of them. Because the BBC had a real bombshell up its sleeve to spring on its viewers and listeners: The "not guilty" verdict by a London court in the case of a man accused of theft.

The accused person, Paul Burrell, had been Princess Diana’s butler for several years. The police had raided his house and found that he possessed 308 items which had belonged to the princess. Burrell’s plea that he had not stolen these articles but had merely removed them to his own house for safe keeping — or, in other words, to prevent other people from stealing them, had not initially been found credible, it turned out that he had, sometime earlier, confided to the Queen that he had removed them to save them from being robbed, and Her Majesty herself had revealed that he had indeed done so.

That did it. Much to the dismay and embarrassment of the police, Paul Burrell walked out of the court a free man, and, perhaps to his own surprise, well and truly launched on the road to fame and fortune: the Monarch herself had intervened to establish that he may have been misguided, but he was not dishonest. Gad sir.


Tabloid editors have sent out their star reporters to interview him, and to get exclusive rights to his ‘real’ story, and no doubt there are book offers from competing publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. After all ‘What the Butler Saw’ was once the staple of what were called peep shows. Here is a real-life butler, who had been in the service of a royal person with a flair for showmanship who lived and dies in a blaze of publicity. What the butler saw of Princess Diana’s everyday life might well be a publishing sensation — if Paul Burrell ever writes the book, that is.

What this case highlights is the true face of Britain; that even if Britannia no longer rules the waves, the Old Lady can deftly waive the rules. A word from the Queen, and the best-laid plans of her own police force and prosecutors have become dust and smoke, or, as the Americans put it, zapped.

The basic fact is that anything, but anything, that was either worn, or used, or played with, by a heavyweight Royal, becomes a collectible, for which people pay the most outrageous prices at public auctions, or, at times, in clandestine sales. What Burrell had managed to remove to his own house for safe keeping could have been sold for — well, a king’s ransom.

To be employed in a royal palace in any capacity — as maid, dog-boy, aide, equerry, secretary, or even what is called a "companion" is to be admitted to a world of privileges. The salary is, well, on civil-service scales, but every job is chock-full of perquisites. The workload is less than light; the lodging, roomy; the food-and-drink, better than home food for the menials, and for those who eat at the royal table, festive. In short, life is a lark!

Which explains why the competition to find a berth, even a temporary one, on the staff of a British royal, has always been fierce. The rules of admission are, no doubt, extremely strict. Still, now and then a cad slips in. As did a qualified and highly recommended doctor, who accompanied the heir to the British crown, on his official tour of Australia in the year 1920.

Those were the days, in the afterglow of victory in World War I, and as the master of an empire on which the sun always shined, Britain may be said to have been at the zenith of its glory, and her royalty had never been more royal.

The Prince of Wales (the future Duke of Windsor) then aged 25, was being sent on a tour of Australia. The Prince was young, and fond of the good life, a diligent practitioner of high living and plain thinking with a marked propensity, already well in evidence, of falling in love with married women. At the time he was "besottedly in love with Freda Dudley Ward."

Understandably enough, the Prince’s father, King Georve V, decided that a prolonged sea voyage to the other end of the world would keep the prince from his favourite pursuits.. and even cool his ardour for Dudley Ward’s wife.

It was not long before a young and ambitious naval officer, a sub-Lieutenant, came to know of the proposed excursion, and instantly set about pulling "every string that might secure him a place in the party." His name: Louis Mountbatten, who happened to be a cousin of the Prince, and had known him well socially.

The subtelities of what is called the Old boys’ network came into play and Mountbatten found himself posted to H.M.S. Renown, the naval vessel in which the party would travel.

Mountbatten’s real role was "to jolly the prince along." But there was no such post on the Prince’s staff, which, in any case, was packed to capacity with the Prince’s cronies; gay, high-spirited, with a propensity for deep drinking and late nights. So how to fit in yet another person as jester-cum-babysitter?

But the Senior Service looks after its own. Mountbatten would be shown as being a flag lieutenant to Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey who was the Prince’s Chief of Staff. Halsey, could then assign him to remain in attendance on the prince. No problem.

Other than the minuscule one, that sub-lieutenant Mountbatten would have absolutely nothing to do except hover round the prince. So the Admiral cooked up a job for keeping Mountbatten busy: Maintain an unofficial diary of the trip, purely "for our own amusement."

Mountbatten, for his part, seems to have gone at his job in what the navy calls the ‘Destroyer Spirit’. He wrote about what he saw candidly, forcefully, and mindful that what he wrote was only for the amusement of the ship’s party, made ‘indiscreet’ revelations about "the relationships between the various members" of the Prince's entourage. Twenty copies of this diary were printed on the ship’s printing press, and they were in constant circulation. But what may have been hugely amusing in Renown’s wardroom, was hardly fit for publication, and, god forbid, if any of the tabloids got hold of the diary, there would be hell to pay. Why it might even rock the Government of the day!

So, imagine the consternation when, after H.M.S. Renown had returned home and some of her passengers already disembarked, it was discovered that one of the copies of the diary was missing. Who could have taken it? The naval officers, handpicked for the voyage, were above suspicion, as were all the members of the Prince’s entourage. It just had to be some ‘outsider’, someone whose credentials did not quite belong in this tribal coterie. They all suspected the ship’s doctor, who had disembarked in something of a hurry.

They set the police after him and how right they were. The culprit was tracked down to Kettner’s restaurant in London, sitting down to lunch with another man who turned out to be an American journalist. And on the table between them was the missing diary. Phillip Zeigler, who has edited the diary for publication writes: "He had been bargaining with the journalist; his asking price was `A3 5,000."