The Daily Mirror got a bargain when it bought Paul Burrell’s story for &£300,000. The royal butler has not done so well out of the deal. Not since Esau sold his birthright for “a mess of pottage” has a man forfeited so much for so much less than it was worth.
More importantly, by that one move, he let the genie of royal scandal out of the bottle, completely undoing the years of patient rehabilitation work by the Palace spin doctors under Mark Bolland. In doing so, he has reminded us of the awesome power of the Press Rampant.
At the start of last week, Burrell was widely seen as the victim of a right royal injustice. The papers were largely unanimous. He was Diana’s “rock”, the man who knew all the royal secrets, but hadn’t sought to sell them, unlike her bodyguard and private secretary who’d both written books telling “the real story”. On the contrary, it seemed the butler had been protecting the princess’s property from her family, who’d shredded her letters and plundered her wardrobes, carting the contents off to Althorp.
Dragged through the law courts by the Spencers and the police, Burrell had even been prepared to go to jail to keep private the knowledge that the Queen knew he’d been looking after some of Diana’s things. Fortunately, Her Majesty “came through for him” in the nick of time, sparing him the indignity of being dragged into the witness box and forced to answer embarrassing questions under oath.
Some 40 witnesses from all over the world had been waiting to testify to his honesty and integrity. They included Diana’s close friend Rosa Monckton and Burrell’s close friend Richard Kay, the Daily Mail’s royal correspondent, who’d even chosen Burrell to be godfather to his daughter.
Many thought Kay’s would be the offer Burrell couldn’t refuse.
But to the Mail’s horror and fury, it turned out that another journalist had been equally close to him – the Mirror’s Manchester reporter Steve Dennis, who secured the scoop for less than a third of the &£1m News International was prepared to pay. Burrell chose the Mirror, and the lower sum, because he didn’t want to tell all he knew and preferred a sympathetic hearing in a paper whose readership he identified with.
What he failed to appreciate (though Max Clifford insists he warned him) was that, by choosing one paper, he turned all the other tabloids – daily and Sunday – against him. And since much of what he knew was already semi-public – not least because of his surprisingly wide-ranging and indiscreet 39-page legal statement – most of it was likely to come out anyway. Hell hath no fury like a tabloid scorned, and the decision to take out an injunction against The Sun only aggravated the Mirror’s rivals further.
As it turned out, they had a good deal to be cross about – the Mirror sold 330,000 extra copies on the first day alone. Yet when it first pulled off the deal, it wasn’t clear the paper would really benefit – particularly if Burrell kept his promise to protect Diana’s memory and the feelings of William and Harry by not being too indiscreet. There were highly professional “spoilers” on the first day in The Sun, the Mail and others – incorporating the best of the Mirror’s revelations, and branding him an “outcast”. Yet still the paper put on sales.
Where the Mirror rea
lly gained was through what its editor Piers Morgan called the “television tie-in”. ITV’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald secured the exclusive Burrell TV interview (including extracts from his video diaries) for &£100,000 and ITV News led on the story virtually all week, often with reports from inside the Mirror newsroom, showing the following morning’s front page. BBC News also interviewed Morgan in the newsroom, but less often and less prominently.
By the time the ITV interview appeared, of course, the story had moved on – with claims (strongly denied) that the Palace had tried to cover up the gay rape of a royal servant and the Sunday paper allegations about Burrell’s own private life. Unfortunately for Trevor McDonald and ITV, their interview had been recorded before these stories emerged.
Given their salacious nature, one might have thought Burrell would have pondered longer and harder before selling his story at all. The allegations had been known by royal journalists for years, but never reported. By selling his story exclusively to one UK newspaper and one TV company, Burrell inadvertently declared “open season” on all royal stories.
Should we have been surprised by the ferocity with which the newspapers unleashed their bombardment on Burrell and his former employers? Given the treatment accorded John Leslie and Angus Deayton in recent weeks, perhaps not. Even so, seasoned explorers in the newspaper jungle were taken aback by the week’s events.
The Burrell frenzy also provided an intriguing counterpoint to the week’s other tale of dark deeds and spin, BBC1’s New Labour drama The Project. It showed Labour spin doctors aping the tabloids’ behaviour, rooting through dustbins and secretly taping Tory indiscretions at a conference cocktail party.
Given what Labour has had to endure from the Press Rampant over the previous 18 years, is it any wonder some of its supporters might have thought that any action was legitimate?
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News