The countess and the caper

A journalist's sting operation prompts the Countess of Wessex to resign.

No longer do you find foot-and-mouth disease, railway standstills, or floods stories on the front pages of the British newspapers. The story of the fake sheikh and the real countess has topped them all.

Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, is married to the Queen Elizabeth II's youngest child, Edward. A dramatic and ethically questionable sting operation by one of the country's most sensationalist tabloid newspapers has embarrassed not only the young lady, but the entire royal family. In the process, she may have helped to spark a change in the rules - for the monarchy, not the press.

A reporter from Britain's best-selling newspaper, the News of The World, dressed up in full desert regalia to pose as an Arab businessman who wanted to do business with the public relations company that she runs. Sophie, and her colleague, Murray Harkin, were secretly taped as they set out their views of various public figures over a lunch at the elegant Dorchester Hotel in London.

Buckingham Palace's media handlers were aghast when they found out about the sting, and cut a disastrous deal with the newspaper. It held back the tapes, and instead was granted a full interview. That backfired, as the paper focused on long-running rumors about the Prince's sexuality. "My Edward's Not Gay," it trumpeted. Worse still, another Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, had picked up second-hand reports of the tapes, and ran a garish account. Sophie was alleged to have criticized the prime minister and his wife, and shared royal family gossip.

On Sunday, the News of the World hit back, releasing its tapes in full. When the details of what Sophie had said were revealed, most of her comments were far less damaging than had been alleged and many had been misreported; but they were still embarrassing.

Her colleague, Mr. Harkin, had gone somewhat further, however. He confessed to occasional drug use, and speculated about Prince Edward's sexuality. And he suggested that an association with the royals could help the sheikh's business.

Both Sophie and Edward have business careers - he runs a small television production company. And there have been suspicions that they have exploited their royal connections. The tapes seem to support that.

"If anybody ever gets some kind of additional profile or benefit from being involved with us because of my situation, that's an unspoken benefit," Sophie told the News of the World.

Sophie has resigned from her job at the public relations firm, although she did have the public support of the queen. "Her Majesty accepts that despite the difficulties of recent days, both [Prince Edward and Sophie] understandably want to try to pursue working careers and they have her full support in doing so," said a statement released Sunday. "It is not an easy option and they are breaking new ground, but it is right in this day and age that they should be allowed to do so."

The countess may be penitent, but the newspapers aren't, despite serious questions about the behavior of the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday. "There is the question of entrapment, and then of misreporting," says Godfrey Hodgson, the director of the Reuters Foundation Program for journalists at Oxford University. British newspapers, unlike many of their American counterparts, are all engaged in tough, competitive struggles for circulation. There is little regulation, and punitive libel laws are all that most newspaper proprietors really respect. The queen may be monarch of all that she surveys, but her prerogatives do not extend to the tabloids.

But the episode has triggered a rethink of the way that royals are allowed to pursue business careers while claiming public money. Though reforms in 1993 shrank the number of royals who receive money from the public purse, the Prince Edward still receives $200,000 annually.

Some of the British newspapers have speculated that the Sophie episode could provoke a "constitutional crisis," but there is little evidence for that.

Particular members of the family, however - especially those who have married into what the queen calls "The Firm" - are regarded by the press as easy targets. Attention has centered on the troubled marriages of Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Charles - especially the latter, whose marriage to Diana Spencer, their turbulent relationship and infidelities, and ultimately her death all took place in the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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