Down and Dirty

updated 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN THE LONDON SUN PUBLISHED on May 12 what it claimed was a secret recording of a spat between Charles and Diana at Highgrove in 1992, Buckingham Palace's response was stern. Offering their diaries as proof, a spokesman claimed that the Waleses had not been together with the children at Highgrove at the time in question, but few were listening.

Not the editors of the top-selling tabloid, who were accused of filching the transcript of the tape from the new, revealing book, Diana vs. Charles: Royal Blood Feud. (An accusation the Sun denies.) Not the book's author, James Whitaker, who enjoyed an avalanche of publicity. And certainly not the public, whose appetite for royal dish—piqued by the "Squidgy" and "Camillagate" scandals—seems insatiable.

All the Palace could do was sit by, splutter "Foul!" and wait for the next revelation to hit the fan, which could happen any second. Though the royals were once considered off-limits. Windsor bashing has become Britain's favorite blood sport, and no fewer than six tell-alls (in addition to the Whitaker book) are due in coming months.

In the meantime, the question of who's bugging the royals—and why—has editorial writers in a frenzy. MPs have demanded an investigation, while government officials including Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke are denying rumors that the domestic security service, M15, is behind the spate of tapes. Other suspects in the caper include civilian eavesdroppers and even the royals themselves.

Whatever the sources, the Queen's subjects eagerly devoured the latest transcript, this one of an alleged tiff between the Waleses just before their split. Never mind that no one seemed to have heard the actual tape. The angry exchange was heard around the globe. "For once, stop being so self-centered," Diana purportedly told her husband. "You still think of me as the person you married." Snapped Charles: "I stopped thinking like that years ago."

The Sun embroidered its account of the dustup by alleging that Charles had slept with confidante Camilla Parker Bowles two nights before his 1981 wedding—a scoop designed to upstage the Daily Mirror's planned excerpt of Whitaker's book. Whitaker, the Mirror's royal correspondent, scolded the rival Sun for stealing his thunder. On May 13, both the Mirror and the Sun printed the alleged transcript of a presplit chat in which Diana told a friend, "I'm going. So are the boys."

The Mirror did at least have one minor scoop with Whitaker's claim that Maj. Bruce Shand, Camilla's father, had made Charles weep when, early this year, he accused him of ruining her life. By then, the Palace was on the counterattack, claiming the Prince was "very angry at being a pawn in a tabloid circulation war.

But Fleet Street was on a roll. The Daily Mail ran bits of Behind Palace Doors by Nigel Dempster. And the Sun is serializing a soon-to-be-published tome by its royal photographer, Arthur Edwards, that is billed as the "royal book the whole country is talking about."

That honor, however, is sure to go to The Royal Marriages by Lady Colin Campbell. Campbell claims that the Queen and Prince Philip became sexually estranged just after she took the throne in 1952 and that both found solace elsewhere. Royalists promptly raised a ruckus. Pleaded romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland (Di's step-grandmother): "Can't somebody stop this ghastly woman?"

Not, it seems, while there's money to be made. The presses are still working nonstop, and the Sun says more than 20 tapes of royal conversations are in circulation. For the Queen and her kin, it may be a long, hot summer.

LARRY WRITER
DEBBIE COOK and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

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