On Duty With The Queen

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Dickie Arbiter’s ‘On Duty With The Queen’ recounts his life as royal press secretary between 1988 and 2000, a dozen years that encompass a momentous period for the monarchy. It is undoubtedly a royal memoir worth the writing, but there was a dilemma of loyalty for the author and publication was preceded by a spate of speculation. The anticipated ‘tell all’ memoirs reportedly had the Prince of Wales up in arms as a palace source was quoted: “Charles is furious. This man was a trusted friend.” Buckingham Palace sought legal advice to prevent publication whilst the author stood to benefit from a reported £250,000 in advances alone. But would it be a breach of his contract? The legal argument in these situations is more often than not moot as any attempt to prevent publication usually backfires badly by generating even more publicity. In the end the lawyers were not sent into action.

Thereafter the anticipation was of a slice of royal history told from the inside, an always tempting if admittedly slightly guilty prospect for the general reader and historian alike. For the Royal Family a degree of trepidation was certainly understandable. The results of royal exposes over the years have been to say the least controversial. Andrew Morton’s era defining ‘Diana: Her True Story’ even managed to make history whilst recounting it. However, as this was Princess Diana’s public cri de coeur as her marriage fell apart, it can’t be described as an invasion of privacy or a breach of trust. It was a tome to which Prince Charles famously felt the need to respond, opening the floodgates to a new era of invasive journalism, the memory of which still sends shivers down the spines of royal advisors.

After Charles and Diana brought the media wolf to the door, in the wake of their mistakes other offerings, for example Paul Burrell’s ‘A Royal Duty,’ have offered more dubious insights. If the former royal butler’s closeness to Princess Diana in her final years is not in doubt his reliability as a tale bearer is questionable. Given the anxious expectation within the Royal Family where does this latest contribution fit in? Hype aside, ‘On Duty With The Queen’ is definitely not the betrayal royal aides were fearing; nor is it an exploitation of recent royal woes. In fact it’s closer in spirit, albeit separated by six decades of fast changing modernity, to Marion Crawford’s ‘The Little Princesses,’ the memoir of her time as royal governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret published in 1950.

Like Crawford, whatever flak he may have taken, Dickie Arbiter is staunchly and genuinely loyal to his former employers and also proud of his professional integrity. This is not a sensationalist account by any means, not royalty through a salacious keyhole. Rather a well-balanced account of the inner workings of the monarchy in the modern age, told by an experienced journalist and broadcaster who played a notable role in its modernisation. That there is enough human interest and inside knowledge of the royals to attract a wider audience is hardly betrayal and the author’s insights are always worthwhile.

The offer to become Palace Press Secretary was an unexpected one. Whilst working for Independent Radio News in 1988 as royal correspondent Arbiter was approached by Philip Mackie, one of the Queen’s press secrataries, who out of the blue offered him the post “to look after the Prince and Princess of Wales . . .” Having worked in independent radio since the 1970s Arbiter, by then aged 48, was open to a change of role “from poacher to gamekeeper,” but he could not anticipate that the monarchy was on the verge of its greatest crisis in recent times.

Initially it was a smooth transition: “I felt very comfortable entering Buckingham Palace that first morning. It was a place to which I had been going on a regular basis for a number of years . . . I already knew my way around pretty well.” Becoming the palace’s media meister proved to be a hectic job. The day would begin “scouring” the newspapers for any royal stories which would then be delivered to the Queen. After which the press office meetings and the work of strategizing upcoming royal engagements filled his schedule . . . (Extract © Royalty Magazine)