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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November, 2003, 16:57 GMT
Net makes royal rumour spread inevitable

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

So was it a good idea for the Prince of Wales's private secretary Sir Michael Peat to come out fighting, and declare that the unreportable allegations about the prince were "untrue" and "risible"?

Some, like the PR guru Max Clifford, thought a statement which still refused to spell out the allegations simply whetted the appetite of millions for the full facts.

Others, like Penny Junor, a biographer of Prince Charles, thought a pre-emptive strike dismissing the claims was a shrewd move.

Once upon a time the newspapers in Britain could decide among themselves what to publish and what to keep quiet
And some, like the former royal press officer Dickie Arbiter, were in two minds.

On Thursday night, shortly after Sir Michael made his statement, he thought Clarence House should have maintained a dignified silence. By the next morning he'd decided the move was probably the right one.

But one thing almost all the experts agreed on: the allegations were bound to get out sooner or later.

The reason? The internet.

Once upon a time the newspapers in Britain could decide among themselves what to publish and what to keep quiet.

Multitude of outlets

In the 1950s, a deferential age, newspaper proprietors could and did agree not to report that the then-Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, had had a stroke, or that Princess Margaret wanted to marry a divorced man, Group Capt Peter Townsend.

Deference has gone. It has been replaced by competition among a multitude of outlets - not just newspapers but television programmes, radio shows, celebrity magazines and websites - and a widespread fascination with celebrities and their private lives.

Even so, using injunctions like the one obtained by Michael Fawcett against the Mail on Sunday might still be a way to keep private matters private and embarrassing revelations out of the public domain, were it not for the net.

The problem is not with the reputable sites.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published full details of the allegations on Friday.

But the international edition of the paper - the one you can buy in Britain - contained nothing (presumably for legal reasons); nor was the story to be found on the paper's website, which is of course accessible from the UK.

Viral spread

But at least two other websites had details of the story on Thursday.

In a wired age we can imagine the news spreading virally via e-mails and text messages to thousands, perhaps millions. Almost half of those calling Radio 5 Live on Friday morning claimed to know what the story was about (a claim hard to verify, because they couldn't say publicly what they thought was supposed to have happened).

In the face of all this, it would not be long before the newspapers could plausibly argue that the story was in the "public domain" and that any injunction should no longer apply.

Sometimes the outing is accidental - John Leslie was inadvertently revealed by a television programme
In the last year or so several other celebrities have found themselves the subject of scurrilous or damaging stories that the newspapers only hint at but full details of which may well be available to internet surfers.

David and Victoria Beckham successfully went to court to kill an untrue story about them on one website.

But others have eventually been outed, or outed themselves, after nudge-and-a-wink media stories have piled up clues as to their identities or what they are alleged to have done.

Sometimes the outing is accidental - John Leslie was inadvertently revealed by a television programme as the man supposedly referred to by Ulrika Jonsson in her autobiography (though she never named him) after days of tabloid stories about an anonymous television presenter.

In any case, savvy readers and viewers can often make a shrewd guess about who is involved or what they are supposed to have done by assembling clues from different media in "jigsaw" fashion.

Anyone who read the front page of one tabloid newspaper on Wednesday and heard Sir Michael Peat's statement on Thursday would be able to work out the nature of the allegations Sir Michael referred to.

There's not a lot anyone can do about this.

Even the lawyers may be forced to throw up their hands (and the chance of fat fees) in the face of two things: public interest in celebrities' private lives and the sheer number of modern media outlets, including the internet.




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