Does press have it out for prince?

Special to The Times

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.

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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.

"We're a democratic and cantankerous country ... and we want to be represented by someone more like us, not someone remote and privileged. Charles is aloof," says Stephen Hasler, who has been a leading advocate of Britain's tiny republican movement, which advocates abolishing the monarchy. "So when something like this story comes up, no one is prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Besides," Hasler added, "he treated Diana very poorly."

Ah, Diana. Still causing trouble for Charles six years after her death. The prelude to the latest furor over Charles was the publication of a book by Paul Burrell, the princess' former butler and confidant, called "A Royal Duty."

Burrell's book tour renewed questions on the whereabouts of an audiotape that Diana supposedly made in which Smith described what he allegedly he saw. The tape has not surfaced, but Burrell says he has heard it and that its contents would be unpleasant for those involved.

"This is Diana yet again getting back at her husband from beyond the grave," Junor complains. "The papers know how to pander to the public. They know if they have a go at Charles in support of Diana, their readers will love them."

Few believe the latest rumors truly put the monarchy at risk -- although some warn that the press is playing with fire. "If we are not careful, the monarchy will be overwhelmed by a tide of sleaze from newspapers who care more for circulation than for the future of the country," the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial aimed at its tabloid cousins.

"If they do bring him down -- and I don't believe they will -- it is very, very serious," says Vickers. "And it would be all based on nothing. At least, I must assume it's nothing."

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