The tale appears to contain all the elements of a blockbuster: blackmail, sex, drugs and a member of the British royal family. On Oct. 28, the Royal Blackmail Plot was splashed across the morning newspapers in the U.K., setting Britons spluttering into their porridge. Two men, according to these front-page reports, had been arrested last month after asking for £ 50,000 (about $100,000) in return for a video purporting to show a royal aide taking cocaine. Some accounts suggested that the video showed the royal engaged in a gay sex act with the aide; in tamer versions, the aide was said to have made claims about a gay sex act with the royal. Amid the welter of lurid allegations, it was easy to overlook the almost complete absence of verifiable facts. But one omission was glaring. Not one report named the aide or the supposed blue-blooded target of the alleged plot.
This wasn't a collective failure on the part of the British press. Editors, aware of the identity of the targeted royal, have ensured later reports make clear that he or she is not a senior member of the family. But websites all over the world have claimed to know the identity of the mystery royal, and news media outside the U.K. have now added their theories. Some of them are dead wrong. Many of them are right.
Yet none of the mainstream media based in the U.K. or with British assets dares to publish the alleged victim's name. To identify him or her or to give any further details that could lead to his or her identification would be in contempt of a court order obtained by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the body responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales. "It's quite normal in cases of blackmail to ask for a Section 11 order [under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act] to protect the identity of the person who's the alleged victim," says a spokeswoman for the CPS. "The whole point of blackmail is that you threaten somebody to reveal something and if it then comes out in court you are effectively doing what the person was being threatened with."
The CPS's gag order, in other words, is intended to protect the alleged victim. Arguably, however, the ban is having the opposite effect. A sensational story about a royal, however minor, would make headlines in some sections of the British press. But any editors considering publishing such a story would have to be certain that any allegations made would not leave their news organizations open to libel charges. Some reports suggest that attempts had been made to sell a story involving the aide and some of the allegations about the royal earlier this year, but none of the newspapers approached took the bait. If true, that would suggest there were concerns among some of Britain's most seasoned tabloid journalists about whether the story could be proved.
The gag order itself became the story instead. Now British news media are focusing on the details they are permitted to reveal, such as the identities of the two men arrested. Their names were revealed in a number of outlets on Oct. 29. Ian Strachan, aged 30, was described by the mass market daily, The Mirror, as "a Scots-born businessman" and by its larger rival, The Sun, as a "socialite smoothie." The other was identified as Sean McGuigan, aged 40, said to be Irish and, according to his neighbor quoted in the Evening Standard, "rough."
In a further colorful twist, the lawyer claiming to represent Strachan is an Italian named Giovanni di Stefano. The Guardian newspaper once profiled di Stefano, a personal friend of Saddam Hussein's, describing the Italian's then client roster as "a veritable rogues' gallery of the most notorious criminals of the past few decades." Di Stefano told the Daily Mail newspaper that Strachan denies asking for money for the tape but was offered money for it by the alleged victim's office. According to the Daily Mail, the lawyer said the tape shows "an assistant to a member of the royal family boasting of how they received a sex act from this royal."
Strachan and McGuigan are due to appear in court on Dec. 20. The gag order obtained by the CPS is not time-limited and could, in theory, continue to restrict reporting of the case in the U.K. through to its conclusion. According to a story in The Sun of Oct. 30, the royal at the center of the case "is on the brink of going public." A Buckingham Palace source quoted in the paper expressed concerns about the wider damage to the reputation of the royal family and added "the secrecy surrounding the case is simply fuelling it into something it is not."
Royal scandals have always proved good box office. The failing marriages of Charles and Diana and Andrew and Sarah in the 1990s boosted newsstand sales everywhere. The whole world was gripped by the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII after he decided to marry the American divorcé Wallis Simpson. However, the last known blackmail case involving a member of the royal family was successfully hushed up for many years. In 1891, the Duke of Clarence, son to King Edward VII, paid £ 200 to secure indiscreet letters he had sent to a prostitute. The case came to light only five years ago when a letter to his lawyer was sold at auction.
Nowadays it's much tougher to keep a lid on a juicy story as these events testify. Razi Mireskandari, a partner at the law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton and a specialist in media law, says he can imagine a scenario in which a gag order might become untenable because websites, wherever they are based, "are becoming freely accessible by nearly everybody. There could be an issue of trying to put your thumb in the dam, but it hasn't quite got to that stage yet." In the case of the anonymous royal embroiled in the alleged blackmail plot, the dam has already been breached.