It’s 9.30 in the evening on Thursday, 20th May and James Whitaker, royal correspondent of The Daily Mirror, is getting impatient. He’s just recorded an interview with Clive Anderson to promote his latest book, Diana v. Charles, and he’s waiting to be photographed with him in the Green Room at London Television Centre so he can go home to bed. He’s got to be up at seven in the morning to go down to Southampton to appear on The Time, The Place before flying to Frankfurt to record a television show. Then it’s back to London where he’s catching the Concorde to New York.
He decides to call his mobile phone answering service to see if he has any messages. His wife of 28 years, Iwona, who often accompanies him on his publicity appearances, holds a napkin out on the table so he can write them down.
His face falls when he hears the first one. “The Queen Mum’s gone into hospital,” he says.
“Will you be able to go to America if she dies?” asks his wife.
“I don’t need that, do I? I do not need the baked bean going.”
When Clive Anderson finally appears, Whitaker tells him the news. “They say it’s only precautionary and she’s in very little distress. They would say that even if she was virtually dead. It might all change when I get there, of course,” he adds, laughing.
After the photograph he calls GMTV who want to interview him about the Queen Mother. “Can you do a down-the-line from Southampton?” he asks. “If you want me to come to Television Centre it would mean getting a car to me by five thirty. I don’t want to mess them around once I’ve made a commitment. I’m very strict about that. It would be pisspoor.”
Then it dawns on him that he’s calling from Television Centre and GMTV are only two floors away. Why doesn’t he record the interview now and they can broadcast it tomorrow? So off he sails, wife and photographer in tow, navigating the labyrinthine corridoors of Television Centre looking for all the world like a seasoned employee. On the way he bumps into several television executives whom he greets warmly by name.
In the GMTV studio, after he’s spoken for a few minutes about the Queen Mother’s present situation, the producer asks him if he could say a few words just in case she dies during the night. James nods and assumes a more sombre expression. “It’s just a devastating blow to the Royal Family,” he says. “She was 92-and-three-quarters and you’re very fragile at that age. I always felt she was one of those ladies who was going to go on and on and then go very fast and that’s the way she’s gone.
“It’s a great blow,” he concludes, injecting a note of sadness into his voice, “but I think this is the way she would liked to have died.”
At 57, James Whitaker is the godfather of the royal correspondents, the “generalisimo” as one of his colleagues puts it. He’s been covering the royal family for 25 years in a tour of duty that includes The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Sun, The Daily Star and, since 1982, The Daily Mirror where he’s billed as “The man who REALLY knows the royals”. He was the first to name Lady Diana Spencer as the future wife of Prince Charles, the first to reveal the divorce of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips and, more recently, the man responsible for securing the pictures of the Duchess of York cavorting topless with John Bryan in the South of France for The Mirror.
Yet even by the standards of this veteran Fleet Street hack, 1993 has been a testing year. Diana v. Charles, which he co-wrote with Today journalist Christopher Wilson, was only one of nine royal books to be published this summer after the huge success of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story last year. Indeed, Whitaker felt personally eclipsed by Morton’s success. “I was the sorcerer and he was the fucking apprentice,” he is reported to have said on learning how much the book had earned.
Along with his agent and the PR company employed by his publisher, James Whitaker had to pull out all the stops to recapture his position as the head of the royal rat pack. In a three-week promotional blitz that began on May 12 and ended when he and his wife decamped to the South of France on June 6, James Whitaker gave 238 radio interviews, over 200 press interviews and appeared on 114 separate television programmes. Only when he lay back on the beach in Antibes could he finally relax, comfortable in the knowledge that Diana v. Charles was the only royal book currently appearing on the best-seller list on both sides of the Atlantic. The man the Princess of Wales dubbed “the big red tomato” had done it again.
It will come as no surprise to James Whitaker’s colleagues to learn that he started out in life not as a journalist but as an articled clerk in an accountancy firm. For his real talent, greater even than his flair for publicity, is the ability to milk his particular area of expertese for every penny its worth. At the Mirror he is famous for responding to every telephone call from a television or radio programme with the words: “Am I speaking in my own time?” Since 1983 he’s had his own weekly radio show in New Zealand and he is a frequent guest, not only on GMTV, but on the Joan Rivers Show.
Recently he got his agent—he is among the few staff journalists in Fleet Street to have his own agent—to renegotiate his Mirror salary. Apart from £80,000 a year basic, he now gets £250 a week in expenses, a company car, a mobile phone and business class air travel. When pressed by a radio interviewer to reveal how much he earned for Diana v. Charles he would only say, “Enough to buy half a racehorse.” In fact, Whitaker did buy half a racehorse this year—Really A Rascal—but it only cost him £5,000, a fraction of what the book has netted him in the eighteen countries it has been sold in so far. It is a measure of how much he earns that earlier this year he considered buying a Mercedes 300SL, the same model that used to be driven by Princess Di. “It’s typical of Whitaker,” says a fellow royal reporter, “that he now wants to buy a car that the Princess of Wales can no longer afford.”
Yet it is not simply his wealth which has made him a legendary Fleet Street figure. It has more to do with his irrepressable sense of style. To fellow members of the rat pack it is a delicious irony that the hack who crawled through three miles of tropical undergrowth to ‘smudge’ (photograh) a pregnant Princess of Wales in the West Indies happens to keep one of the best cellars in London. They also know that the man who has filled the tabloids with countless royal exclusives wouldn’t be seen dead reading anything other than The Daily Telegraph. A ‘snapper’ (photographer) he worked with recalled how, one cold morning after doorstepping the Princess of Wales, he and Whitaker stopped off at a working man’s cafe. After one look at the patrons, all of whom were reading either The Sun or The Daily Mirror, Whitaker turned to his colleague and said, “We might write for the fuckers, but we don’t have to eat with them.”
James Whitaker’s booming self-confidence almost deserted him on the night of Tuesday, May 11, when GMTV called him for a comment on the headline in the following day’s Sun: ‘MI5 BUGGED CHARLES & DIANA’S BUST-UP’. It was billed as a ‘WORLD EXCLUSIVE’ but in fact it had been lifted from Diana v. Charles which The Daily Mirror had planned to start serialising the following week. It was the first he learnt of what is known in the trade as a ‘nick job’. Not only did The Mirror refuse to pay him what they’d agreed for the serialisation rights, so did papers in Germany and South Africa. “That was a very expensive spoiler for me,” says Whitaker, who estimates it cost him £100,000.
He was on the phone to his PR at seven the next morning. Together, they put his personal publicity machine into top gear. His first media appearance was on the lunchtime ITN News at 12.30. He was then interviewed by James Naughtie on the World At One, followed by an interview with Frank Bough on LBC. By three o’clock, the central claim of his book—that the intelligence services were bugging the royal family—was headline news, and he held a press conference at The Mirror. Whitaker likes to boast that in Australia it is him rather than the Princess of Wales who is mobbed by autograph-hunters on royal tours, but he had never been interviewed by his own colleagues before. Today even hired the official Princess Di look-a-like to present him with a bunch of flowers. “Fuck me,” he said, looking round at the assembled throng. “I never expected this.”
In the days that followed, James Whitaker’s credibility took a serious battering. Not only did the Home Secretary issue an official denial of the story which had become known as ‘Tomatogate’, but in an unprecedented development it was also denied by members of both MI5 and MI6. Buckingham Palace even denied that the Prince and Princess of Wales had been at Highgrove at the time the conversation which had allegedly been bugged was supposed to have taken place. The low point came on the morning of Sunday, May 16 when he appeared on Andrew Neill’s show on LBC. In a gruelling interrogation, the editor of The Sunday Times forced him to admit that he had obtained the transcript of the conversation not from a source inside GCHQ but from Dave Alford, a hack on The People. “It was horrendous, just horrendous,” says Whitaker.
But if his revelations didn’t have the veracity of Andrew Morton’s they certainly had the news value. In the week the story broke, he appeared on the Frost Programme, London Tonight, CBS News, Entertainment Tonight, was interviewed by The Observer and The Sunday Times, and recorded an in-store message for all branches of Asda where his book was on sale.
The coverage was far from universally favourable. The Guardian made him the subject of its ‘Pass Notes’ series, describing his appearance as “a panda on heat”. “I do mind the bad publicity” he says. “I don’t say bollocks, I have been hurt by it. This personal stuff is absolutely terrible. You know who really minds? One’s children. Of course, now I know how William and Harry feel.”
Whitaker himself hasn’t always shown the greatest sensitivity to the children of his royal prey. Last winter, when the Duchess of York appeared in Kloisters for a photocall with her two daughters, he turned to one of his colleagues and in a voice which boomed across the mountains said, “Ugly little fuckers, aren’t they?”
James Whitaker’s claim to “REALLY know the royals” is based on his supposed intimacy with Diana. “The Princess of Wales and I have so much in common,” he once told a colleague. He first met her at a wedding he was covering when she was just 16. He says, “She came up to me and said, ‘I know who you are, you’re the wicked Mr Whitaker.’ I had been reporting on her sister, Laday Sarah’s, romance with Charles and I had obviously been discussed in their household.”
Having taken a professional interest in Prince Charles’s romantic life from the beginning, Whitaker became convinced that Lady Di was the one Charles would marry and he doorstepped her relentlessly for the next three years. It was this which allegedly led to their becoming friends. On one famous occasion, he asked her to make up a four at bridge, though she politely declined. He even claims to have played a part in the royal romance.
“I so willed him in my mind to marry her,” he says, “and I so talked to her about how she ought to marry him. I played a tiny part in that marriage, but a very important part. I was such a part of their courtship that I’m very, very sad now that it’s all over.”
But in the 15 years that have elapsed since he first met her, relations have soured between Diana and Whitaker. “The Princess of Wales does not like him,” says a fellow royal reporter. “She doesn’t confide in him.” The fact that he was responsible for pictures of her pregnant being splashed across the British tabloids can’t have helped. “She doesn’t like him spying on her,” says a royal photographer. “She says, ‘He’s always looking at me through those binoculars.’”
According to one royal insider, James has not endeared himself to the Palace with his behaviour over the summer. “Buckinham Palace have long viewed James as a fairly harmless and benign figure who has the best interests of the Royal Family at heart,” he says. “People at the Palace say they now view him as a very dangerous and stupid man and they can’t really treat him seriously any more.”
All things considered, he was probably right to reject the original title of his book: My Life With Diana.
By the time he arrived in New York on Sunday, 23 May James Whitaker was beginning to tire of the endless round of interviews. “I should never have gone to Frankfurt,” he said. “God it was tacky. They told me it was the most popular programme in Germany of its type. I said, ‘What kind of audience d’you get?’ They said, ‘Oh, about a million.’ Can you belive it? A lousy fucking million!”
The next morning, on his way to the Com/Tech studio to be interviewed live via satellite by dozens of local American television stations, he took the opportunity to question the publicist from his American publishers. He’d already been to several bookshops and offered to autograph copies. “I was quite surprised to see Nigel Dempster’s book already discounted,“ he told her.
“You have to discount it to make the bestseller list,” she explained.
“Is mine going to be discounted?”
“You’ve been making so many headlines,” she said, “we don’t need to discount it.”
By way of proof she produced a copy of that week’s National Enquirer. The front page bore the headline “CHARLES & DI TAPED AS THEY MADE LOVE” and on the centre pages were reprinted extracts from “The explosive book the whole world is talking about”. Whitaker stared at it in disbelief. “That’s not exactly understated is it,” he said. “Cor blimey, I hope that doesn’t get back to London.” Later he relaxed and, pointing at the front page, said, “Mind you, they didn’t get many recordings. Maybe she’s going to ask for a copy just to remind her it did happen.”
When he arrived at the studio he was immediately taken in hand by Patti Taylor, the director of what she refered to as Whitaker’s “satellite press tour”. “We only shoot you from here up,” she explained, indicating that the viewer wouldn’t see anything below his collar and tie. “Is that for aesthetic reasons?” he asked. Soon he was surrounded by make-up girls, each attending to different parts of his anatomy. “This is great,” said Whitaker. “You have to pay good money for this back home.” After they’d finished he stood back and admired himself in the mirror. “I don’t know why I don’t wear make-up in London,” he said, turning left, then right. “It makes a big difference.”
As one presenter on GMTV put it, James Whitaker “gives good interview” and as the cameras began to roll it became clear what she meant. Talking to WSUN Miami, he said: “Two days before the marriage Charles was sleeping with his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles.” Up in the control room, Patti Taylor turned to her assistant: “Is this good or what?” Whitaker continued: “She has an animal magnetism that really turns him on. As you’ll see in the book, she’s not the cleanest of women, she doesn’t wash all that often…that really turns him on.”
Over the course of the next three hours and 17 minutes, during which he is interviewed by 25 television stations, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. What is so impressive is his ability to sound completely sincere even when saying the most outlandish things. “I think it’s quite well-known throughout America,” he tells Patricia from WTVT Tampa, “that I am the royal correspondent closest to the Royals.” As one of his fellow reporters puts it, “James doesn’t take any bullshit from other people, but God can he bullshit them.”
The following day he was up at seven for five hours of radio interviews, followed by a night in Washington where he was interviewed by The Washington Post, then off to Canada where he did a spot on Prime Time, as well as being interviewed by The Toronto Star. In the course of his five-day North American publicity tour, he also appeared on A Current Affair, the Joe Madison Show, the John Gambling Show, the Dini Petty Show and the Joan Rivers Show, as well as being interviewd by USA Today, People, The San Francisco Chronicle and countless other newspapers.
For a 57-year-old man who, as one colleague put it, “looks as though he might drop dead of a heart attack at any minute”, this is a punishing schedule. While he refuses to reveal how much he’s made out of Diana v. Charles—“I’ve had to cope with enough jealousy already”—he’s happy to say where it’s gone. “I’ve put a lot into pensions,” he says. “Maxwell’s pinched all my retirement money.”
He doesn’t envisage going on for all that much longer. “The thought of having to report on the love lives of william and Harry fills me with horror,” he says. “The idea of traipsing around at six-o’clock in the morning at Anabells or whatever trying to find out who they’re going out…I just couldn’t do it.”