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In Britain, rumors of Charles not fit for print

LONDON -- The latest scandal to hit Britain's royal family has set off a peculiar kind of media frenzy. Newspapers have run front-page stories. Prince Charles has issued a public denial. Commentators on the radio have debated the incident's long-term impact on the monarchy.

Yet, in more than a week of intense coverage, no one has printed or said exactly what it is Prince Charles insists did not happen. Britain's strict libel laws have kept the country's media from specifically describing the allegation, which the tabloids have hinted at with varying degrees of subtlety.

"It's bizarre. It's the great nonstory," said Justin Lewis, professor of communications at Cardiff University in Wales. Usually when the courts suppress information, he said, newspapers publish nothing. "What's different about this is it's getting a huge amount of coverage even though they can't print the story. It's almost a bigger story."

What the papers have published is that a former royal valet, George Smith, has claimed to have witnessed Prince Charles in a sexual "incident" with a former royal aide. Stories have also highlighted the fact that a former royal aide, Michael Fawcett, was the person who obtained an injunction 10 days ago to prevent The Mail on Sunday from printing a story detailing what Smith saw.

Although media outlets haven't revealed why both Charles and Fawcett want to keep the alleged incident a secret, they've hinted. More than a week ago, before Charles's name surfaced, The Sun ran a story claiming that Smith had told his brother that he had seen a male royal in bed with a male aide some years ago. The Daily Mirror reported Monday that a senior adviser to Charles once asked a gay courtier if he thought the prince were bisexual. The Star's headline for a story -- later denied by a royal spokesman -- that said the prince would defend himself on television read: "TV Charles: I'll Tell It Straight."

On Friday, Prince Charles's office made the unusual decision to deny what was not yet public information in a statement that dismissed the allegations -- without saying what they were -- as "entirely untrue." The statement described Smith, a Falklands war veteran, as an unreliable witness who has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism and who has made other unsubstantiated claims.

"The speculation needs to be brought to an end," the statement read.

The injunction against The Mail on Sunday, and its threat for other newspapers, has put the British media in a tricky spot. The story has been reported in foreign papers, and versions of it can be found on the Internet. Yet in Britain, where interest would be most intense, the papers have had to write around it.

"It's an unprecedented journalistic situation. It's slightly surreal," said Ivor Gaber, professor emeritus of journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He said the ban has been effective. He also noted that he's heard two different stories about what supposedly went on between Fawcett and the prince from two people, each convinced of his or her version.

"Most people don't know. They can guess, but the actual number of people in this country who know is not vast," he said. Even if you want to find it on the Internet, "you have to find the appropriate site, and you have to make a judgment as to whether it's credible."

In interviews with about a dozen people in central London yesterday, about half said they haven't been reading the tabloids and didn't know what the fuss was about.

"I haven't got a clue what it is," said Jenny Smith, 54, a civil servant taking her lunch break in central London yesterday. "If it does come out in a newspaper, I'll probably get one and just read it out of curiosity, but I don't think you can believe what is said."

The rest were reasonably confident they had a fairly good idea of what the papers weren't reporting, even if it was just a guess.

"I can only speculate as to the specific allegations, but it's pretty clear what the gist of it is," said Warren Schenk, a 26-year-old recruitment consultant.

"My personal opinion is that it's based on nothing. I'm not a big fan of the prince. I wouldn't stand up and defend him in any way, shape, or form, but I don't believe in the accusation."

Some royal watchers attribute the entire hubbub to fallout from the acrimonious split between Princess Diana and Prince Charles, fueled by a turf war between intensely competitive tabloids. The rumors about the incident making headlines now first surfaced about a year ago, during the trial of Diana's former butler Paul Burrell, who was cleared last year of charges that he stole items from the Princess' estate. Among the items that Burrell was accused of taking was a tape made by Princess Diana recording Smith alleging that he had been raped by another royal aide.

The story of the sexual encounter between a male royal and his aide was also reported to be on the tape.

These stories surfaced again a few weeks ago, when Burrell was promoting his new memoir about working for Princess Diana, "A Royal Duty."

"After Charles and Diana's separation, the tabloids have decided that Prince Charles has become a sort of whipping boy for the royal family," said Bob Houston, publisher of Royalty magazine. The latest rumors, which he believes are entirely unfounded, are not endearing Charles to the British people, he said.

"It's not helping him."

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