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Britain's Royal Pain

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 25, 1992; Page D01

LONDON, Aug. 24 -- As Britain's besieged royal family dodged new screaming rockets from the tabloids -- this time with Princess Diana as the target -- debate quickened today over how many royals the country really needs and how much taxpayer money should be spent to keep them in palaces and pearls.

What began as a summer-doldrums newspaper circulation war now threatens to turn into a more serious discussion about the nature of monarchy and the responsibilities that royal status should bring.

"The House of Windsor has failed to move with the times," said Harold Brooks-Baker, director of Burke's Peerage, a bible of the aristocracy. "They've failed to address issues that the people care about. They've had this paternalistic attitude, 'We're right, and God will understand.' "

There seemed to be no danger that the royals would be thrown out on their collective ear -- the monarchy has lasted a millennium, and traditional sentiment of the Scepter'd Isle variety runs deep. But with more embarrassing revelations surfacing every day, a family whose sole function in life is to be respected seemed to be sinking ever deeper into soap opera kitsch.

A poll released Sunday showed that while most Britons still support and respect the monarchy, 61 percent believe that recent scandals have done "lasting damage" to the royal family's image.

What even the serious newspapers now call the "royal crisis" began Thursday when the tabloid Daily Mirror printed photographs of the Duchess of York -- the former Sarah Ferguson -- frolicking topless with her American "financial adviser" in the south of France.

Today the Mirror's chief competitor, the Sun, published the transcript of a nearly three-year-old taped conversation in which a woman purported to be Princess Diana complains to a male friend that her husband "makes my life a real torture."

Sprinkled throughout the conversation, which Buckingham Palace has declined to respond to, are kootchee-koos and episodes of phone-kissing. The Sun baptized the tape, inevitably, as "Dianagate."

Unlike the pictures of the red-haired duchess -- who is married to Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth's son -- the taped conversation offers no clear and convincing evidence of extramarital hanky-panky. But also unlike the Fergie photos, the Dianagate tape supposedly involves the wife of the heir to the throne.

In the tape, the woman's voice identified by the Sun as that of the future Queen of England (called "Squidgy" by her male friend) is heard to complain that "I can't stand the confines of this marriage."

The Sun claims, without further elaboration, that "independent voice-test analysis in America" has confirmed that the voice is that of the princess. Even the Sun's competitors said the tape sounded convincing, and cited excerpts that they said demonstrated that the voice was that of either the princess or someone who knew an awful lot about her private life.

The conversation was supposedly recorded on New Year's Eve 1989. It could be monitored, according to reports, because the man heard in the tape -- his first name, apparently, is James -- was using a cellular phone.

It is believed the Sun has had the tape for up to two years, but for some reason held back. The newspaper is smarting from having been scooped by the Daily Mirror on the Fergie photos.

There is nothing new in reports of marital difficulties between Prince Charles and Princess Diana. A biography of the 31-year-old princess by Andrew Morton this year paints Diana as desperately unhappy and alleges that she had threatened suicide several times and suffered from the binge-and-purge eating disorder called bulimia.

But the tape, coming on the heels of the photographs of the Duchess of York with businessman John Bryan, helps further the image of the young royals as somewhat flighty, somewhat vapid, somewhat extravagant.

In the Fergie photos, the duchess is seen acting like a garden-variety jet-setter. In the tape, the woman purported to be Diana prattles on about her clothes and how well she wears them.

The royals are also somewhat expensive, subsidized to the tune of at least $14 million annually in direct payments to family members. All told, the monarchy costs more than $100 million a year -- though royal pomp like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace does bring in tourist dollars.

Brooks-Baker and other monarchists have begun arguing that the House of Windsor should pare itself down, as other European families have done.

A leaner, meaner royal family might include just Queen Elizabeth and

husband Prince Philip, Queen Mother Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Princess Diana and their children -- no Andrew, no Fergie, no Princess Margaret, no Princess Anne, none of the rest of the "minor" royals, who would then become private citizens and be stricken from the public dole.

"The royal family should be trimmed down," the Sun, at 3.5 million copies a day Britain's biggest-selling daily, thundered in an editorial today. "The Queen should support them from the private income {$24 million a year} that makes her the sixth-richest person in the world. She should also pay tax on her wealth."

"People might forgive them living messy private lives if only they wouldn't do it at the taxpayer's expense. Resentment of the Queen's tax-free status goes deep," wrote columnist Lynn Barber of the Independent on Sunday. As a policy, her newspaper avoids stories about the royals like the plague, but it could not ignore the weekend's ballyhoo.

When the current round of scandal began last week, the whole family was gathered at Balmoral Castle in Scotland for its annual holiday.

Pundits had been predicting a reconciliation between Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, who separated in March. But publication of the photographs seems to have made that possibility much more remote.

The duchess and her two children, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, left Balmoral Sunday for the house she now rents outside London.

She seems to have taken the brunt of public opinion: In a poll commissioned by the Sunday Express, 73 percent of respondents agreed that she "wants the privileges of being a member of the royal family without all the responsibilities," and 86 percent said she should be stripped of her title if she and Prince Andrew divorce.

According to the poll, 74 percent of those surveyed believed the royal family was still "highly respected," but 59 percent called them "extravagant."

Asked whether Britain would have a royal family in 50 years, 4 in 10 said yes. Three in 10 said no.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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