Guyanese woman in the eye of a royal media storm
Coleen Harris signs off from Prince Charles
By John Mair in London
November 19, 2003
She finally left his employ on Monday two weeks later than initially planned. She had been called back in to quell a violent media storm swirling around Prince Charles. Guyanese born Coleen Harris has been his Press Secretary for the last three years, including his trip to Guyana. But this 'Fawcettgate' affair was her latest and greatest public relations challenge in the Court of Clarence House and one she met head on by trying to seize the media high ground. She got her boss, the Prince's Private Secretary Sir Michael Peat, to 'come clean' about sexual innuendo involving the Prince.
Thursday night, at a London event organised by the Media Society, she defended Sir Michael's decision to make a public statement denying the rumours surrounding the prince, arguing that by doing so the prince's advisers "stole the agenda away from the media".
Coleen Harris, born in Guyana, was due to leave Clarence House and royal employ at the end of October. She'd had the farewell party and packed her bags to go to join fellow Guyanese Trevor Phillips at the Commission for Racial Equality as his Director of Communications. She had even taken a short break in Trinidad.
Then a huge brouhaha broke out and she was parachuted back to Clarence House to advise. First, Princess Diana's former butler Paul Burrell wreaked revenge on the House of Windsor for having allowed his trial on charges of stealing from Diana to go ahead only for it to be abandoned when the Queen conveniently remembered a meeting in which she'd discussed the matter with him. He publicly produced many damaging letters from Princess Diana's secret collection of 'dirt' on her former husband, the Prince of Wales. Coleen then engineered the couple's two sons - Princes William and Harry - to make a public statement (which she read out to the camera) that they felt 'shocked and betrayed' by Burrell and wanted to meet him. Observers say that any such meeting was to, in effect, put a lid on any further revelations and embarrassment.
That was the first, as it turned out only minor, whirlwind. The real one was to begin two weeks ago started by Prince Charles' former valet and close confidant Michael Fawcett. He went to a British court and obtained an injunction against British papers publishing allegations (or rumours) about him, Prince Charles and unnatural sexual acts. Rather than drawing a line under them, that injunction had exactly the opposite effect. Floodgates of innuendo flooded the internet. Public interest and curiosity mounted. British papers all but published but pulled back, just, from the edge. Finally Prince Charles Private Secretary Sir Michael Peat, it turns out on Coleen's advice, decided to face those rumours head on in a public statement on November 6th. He denied publicly the truth of stories that had not been published and, en passant, slandered the author of them (another former palace servant) calling him, effectively, a fantasist
On Thursday night Ms Harris rebuffed the suggestion that Sir Michael's statement had merely served to fuel the press frenzy. Pressure from foreign newspapers and from websites left the prince's advisers with little choice but to issue a denial, Ms Harris said. "It was already out on the internet two and a half weeks before. We were under pressure from the foreign press.
We were looking at it from a global point of view.
"We didn't have anything to hide, but what we weren't prepared to do is to let the innuendo continue."
She thought that by fronting up, the Royal household had seized control of the agenda. That position was not shared by the Queen's former Press Secretary Simon Walker who was in the audience for Coleen's speech. He firmly thought the strategy was mistaken.
Coleen said that she had emerged from the firestorm with a lesser opinion of some of the journalists involved. She questioned their "honour". She said her experience over the past few weeks, during which she battled to keep lurid allegations about the prince out of the papers had left her disillusioned with the press.
"Where we get bad press is where they [journalists] are trying to use scurrilous rumours to try to grab a headline and keep a story running,"
But she admitted that Prince Charles's reputation with the public has been damaged by the media's obsession with "tittle-tattle" about his private life.
Finally she can pack her bags and move on leaving the Clarence House Circus and the hungry media behind. Her baptism of fire at the CRE can be nothing compared to this farewell 'present' from Prince Charles.