Andrew Morton seems to have taken rather literally the common platitude that
any memorial to Princess Diana must reflect the nature of her life. She was
humiliated by the release of her private conversations on tape. So he has
decided to mark her death by publishing the contents of secret cassettes of her
As a journalist whose revelations changed the course of British history and
made him a multi-millionaire, Morton has always attracted envy and resentment.
But I write as a former devout Mortonite, one of the relatively few reviewers
who took his book, Diana: Her True Story, seriously from the time of its
publication in 1992. My interest was based on the assumption that the book
was ventriloquism for the princess. Accordingly, it was relief rather than
resentment I felt this week when Morton's admission that the book was indeed a
disguised autobiography revealed his strenuous denials to me in two separate
interviews (in print and on television) to have been lies.
Morton isn't a moral leper because he lied then. He is a moral leper because he
has chosen to tell the truth now. The writer's decision to republish Her True
Story with first-person quotation replacing third-person nuance - and his
apparent release to America's People magazine of the tapes the princess made
for him - raise two issues of media behaviour, which are at least as important
as the currently much-discussed question of privacy: the first is
confidentiality; the second is commercial exploitation of tragedy.
Other professions, which offer safety deposit boxes for conversation, would
expel members who behaved as Morton has. The Catholic priest is not freed from
the confidentiality of the confessional by the death of the penitent, nor is
the lawyer's duty of secrecy suddenly dissolved should the client happen to
misjudge the speed of a bus outside the court.
Perhaps journalists have never aspired to the standards of the Church or the
law. Even so, it would be surprising if journalism courses teach that
confidentiality is merely a lifetime guarantee. It seems unlikely that those
reporters who have risked imprisonment by refusing to identify a source would
have made an instant phone call to the judge if they recognised in the
obituaries column one morning a name they had carefully omitted from their
Cynics might have assumed that Morton would use the traditional defence for
invading privacy or breaking confidences: that celebrities like Diana have a
complicated relationship with secrecy and revelation. (Earl Spencer's apparent
failure to say goodbye to Hello magazine in recent years lends further
credibility to this popular excuse.)
Yet Morton has opted for a more noble apologia. In an interview with ITV's
Richard & Judy yesterday, he explained: "I've got a responsibility to
people out there who want to understand Diana." This, then, is public service
publishing. And yet so many of the public find reading a chore. The British
government was forced this very week to launch an anti-illiteracy drive. How
long before Morton feels that it is his responsibility to release the tapes to an American
television news show or to authorise an audio-book version of the princess's
The author's second line of defence raises the wider and more complex matter of
commercial exploitation of tragedy. The writer clearly feels that he is being
used as a lightning conductor for a general storm of morbid money-making. Also
in conversation with Richard & Judy, he complained: "Lord Deedes has
written a book! The BBC have released a video! ITN have released a video!" In
other words, Morton is no more or less immoral than three ancient media
In fact, Lord Deedes has written only an 800-word preface for a collection of
Daily Telegraph reports, all profits from which will go to the paper's own
appeal for the victims of landmines. Such publishing arrangements contrast
starkly with the deal by which an unspecified percentage of Morton's profits go
The BBC and ITV are also a bad comparison, although for different reasons.
Both, it is true, are making only a donation from the sales of the video
releases of their coverage. But the BBC spent millions from a hard-pressed
budget in covering the story on the scale that its licence-payers were
perceived to want. ITV suspended adverts during much of the coverage, thus
reducing profits. There would be a good case for both broadcasters taking all
the proceeds from the video sales to restore their income.
Yet the charge of making cash from catastrophes is more complicated than it
might at first appear. In an unusual case of a pop star setting the highest
moral standards, Elton John established early on the model of altruism by
closing his pockets to any proceeds from the sale of his Diana song. Andrew
Morton has now stuck a flag of equal size and prominence in the bogs of the
moral low ground.
Morton, however, is right to suggest that there are fascinating shades of
commerce between those two positions. Florists - many of whom will be able to
retire earlier than planned to tend their rose gardens as a result of the
bouquet-mania of September - have been under curiously little pressure to
pledge their windfall to good causes. London hotels had their busiest September
in history as a result of the funeral, yet the Hilton and Holiday Inn profits
are subject to no opprobrium.
Long before the events of the last month, it's clear that public tragedy has
built and furnished many fine private houses. Books, television programmes and
films on two world wars, the Holocaust, Aberfan, Hillsborough and Dunblane have
been sold around the world to the financial benefit of their creators.
Andrew Morton is right to say that there is nothing new in turning death to
credit. But this defence cannot protect him because he is also guilty of a
novel immorality in deciding that promises of confidentiality are not
I'd be tempted to release the full tapes of our past interviews but,
unfortunately, he was clever enough to tell identical lies on and off the record.