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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 08:33 GMT
Butler makes for royally difficult year
Paul Burrell
Paul Burrell's trial was unlike most others
Peter Hunt

More than a month on, the police tape was still there. Up in the public gallery, the front row remained closed off by distinctive blue and white tape more usually used at a crime scene to restrain the curious.

It was put in place during the Paul Burrell trial to stop the public - and more especially, journalists - peering down from their vantage point at sensitive photographs and documents.

Just one of countless examples of how different this trial was from most others.

Paul Burrell and Princess Diana
Paul Burrell was privy to many royal secrets
Court Number One at the Old Bailey - where Ruth Ellis was sentenced to death and mass murderers Peter Sutcliffe and Dennis Nilsen were tried - was, in October, the setting for yet another extraordinary trial.

If it hadn't collapsed in the way it did, much probably would have been written at the end about secrecy. It all got forgotten in the rush to report on the Queen's recall of a five year old conversation.

But it is worth reflecting - as I suspect law books may do in the future - on the efforts made by the court to protect the royals.

The judge, Mrs Justice Rafferty - who seemed to have a peculiar effect on male reporters of a certain age - was upfront about it from the start.

She ruled the interests of Princes William and Harry - both young adults - had to be considered along with those of Mr Burrell.

So, photographs of the young princes were stored in files labelled very sensitive; the contents of private letters from Diana to William which began "My Darling Wombat" weren't disclosed in open court; and chunks of Paul Burrell's witness statement were suppressed. Inevitably, mistakes were made.

A barrister began reading out one of the supposedly restricted sections.

The Queen's come through for me

Paul Burrell
"The Princess had a number of... ". He stopped when he realised his error. The missing phrase is unlikely to have been "cuddly toys".

At times when the prosecution held private meetings with the judge - to the exclusion of everyone else - I spent more time outside than inside the courtroom. All of this stretched the definition of "open justice".

"The Queen's come through for me," declared Paul Burrell after he had been cleared of the theft charges. She sure did, but at what cost? For 50 years, many have said she has reigned without putting a foot wrong.

Paul Burrell on talk show Larry King Live
Paul Burrell tells his story on Larry King Live
Now, in her Golden Jubilee Year, she has intervened in a court case in dramatic fashion. Regina versus Paul Burrell became Regina saves Paul Burrell.

Her supporters say she's been a victim of her own scrupulous desire not to get involved in the legal process and that's why she didn't mention the conversation with her former servant much earlier.

The doubters - and their concerns haven't really been assuaged by what they've subsequently heard - point to the timing of the Queen's intervention: just before Paul Burrell went in to the witness box, under oath, and gave evidence in his criminal trial.

What might he have said about life with the Wales?

There are few winners.

Internal inquiry

The police - an elite team set up to handle sensitive cases - were undermined by a defence claim that they had "grossly misled" Prince Charles when they told him - wrongly - that there might be evidence Diana's former butler had sold royal property abroad.

And it's difficult to talk of the mystique of monarchy when we now know a servant was on hand to help the heir to the throne when he provided a urine sample in hospital.

Tales of how Prince Charles liked a particular valet because of the way he squeezed the toothpaste onto his toothbrush, further strip away the mystery.

To help to limit the damage and show he runs a household with high standards, Prince Charles has set up an internal inquiry into the fallout from the Paul Burrell affair.

Royal secrets

Paul Burrell is now a free man who has been cleared of any crime by one of the highest courts in the land.

But he did suffer a backlash in the media after selling his story and his claim to be the keeper of Diana's secrets was dented when newspapers published some of the contents of a confidential document he had given to his solicitors about life with the royals.

His recall of his conversation with the Sovereign revealed a commendable memory not dimmed by the passage of time.

The revelation that the Queen had spoken of "powers at work in this country which we have no knowledge about" made her sound like a scriptwriter for the X-Files.

Paul Burrell has spoken recently about the royal secrets he hasn't revealed.

Princess Anne
Princess Anne was fined after her dog attacked two children
He went on: "I knew every aspect of Diana's life". Such comments won't help the digestion as the Royal Family tuck into their turkey on Christmas Day and reflect on the year.

It began well. Royal tours to every corner of the UK; a pop concert in Buckingham Palace; and a million people in the Mall.

But then came the case of Princess Anne's dog Dottie and the spectacular collapse of two butler trials - Paul Burrell and Harold Brown.

2002 doesn't compare with the Abdication Crisis of the 1930s or the personal pain of 1992 - the Queen's annus horribilis when Windsor Castle went up in flames and her children's marriages publicly disintegrated.

But damage has been done. It may not be long-lasting. It has provoked people to question more.

The age of deference is dead and buried.

Throughout this whole sorry saga, one woman has dominated events.

In death, as in life, Diana, Princess of Wales continues to exert a peculiar hold on the royals and their fortunes.

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