Merton’s book changed many worlds but the ‘dream’ lives on for now

A SELECT number of books and films, whose meaning bypasses most of us at first, grow in stature and worth as the decades go by.
IGeorge Orwell’s famous 1984 was like that. When readers back in 1949 were confronted with an image of a ‘Big Brother’ society, they probably thought it was merely a great story. Now it is commonly viewed as a prophetic view of a world we are living in right now.
Whilst Andrew Merton’s Diana: Her True Story could never be viewed in the same class in terms of a work of literature, I’ve been reminded in recent days of how his pen has also reshaped our view of the world.
In last night’s excellent Sky Arts documentary, it was billed as The Book that Changed Everything, a good piece of TV licence, of course, but let’s not underestimate the mind-shift we have gone through since its publication 25 years ago.
This was no ordinary book.
It came about almost by accident and its contents initially shocked the author as much as its readers.
Merton had been a Royal correspondent, accustomed to enhancing the dream world of the nation’s most famous family.
Royal correspondents were always more PR than hard journalism. They were never going to dig for what was really going on behind closed doors – there was neither the access nor more interestingly the public demand for it – their role was and is to communicate the establishment’s message.
I recall once in my modest role at the Loughborough Echo talking to the council’s fairs manager about alleged fights between fair workers and locals in night clubs.
His answer was a classic: “Why can’t you write good things about the fair?”
That magnified a million times is how the Royal Family have always been reported: image first, don’t even think about the substance.
The interesting thing about charades is that people actually believe them. Because they want to.
Merton himself confessed that he was taken in enough by the sham of a marriage between Charles and Diana to be totally shocked when first confronted with evidence to the contrary.
Here was a guy who, unlike us, saw the couple operate at close distance on a very regular basis but he had no idea what was really going on.
Merton never interviewed Diana for the book. His material was collected by a go-between for reasons of secrecy.
He told Radio 5 Live on Sunday that had he turned up at Buckingham Palace he’d have been recognised as a Royal correspondent and turned away.
It’s that kind of world. The ‘firm’ relies on so-called journalists to put out their daily hype but closes its doors on any closer investigation.
Merton listened to the tapes produced by his friend and could scarcely believe his own ears.
He initially had to go through exactly the same mind shift as the rest of us.
Merton hinted that even he wasn’t really prepared for the backlash likely to come his way when the book was finally published in 1992.
He’d already been given a preview as Royal staff had become more and more suspicious of what was going on and his house was raided. All part of the way the rich and famous operate when they’re about to be rumbled! No real cause for concern.
Merton had nearly the whole of Fleet Street as well as The Crown on his back.
Nobody had stuck their necks out before and actually told the truth about the Royals. Perish the thought.
The fact that all 50,000 first edition copies were sold on day one was no reliable indication of the public mood either.
Many viewed it as the latest fluffy work about a Princess living a great life.
Readers probably found it about as convincing as Orwell’s great work.
Because this wasn’t the story we had been told for years.
I caught up with the book a few years later. It’s difficult to recall exactly but I probably read it just after Diana’s infamous Panorama interview.
Like anyone else, I had to tear up my original thoughts and admit I’d been hoodwinked before I could bring myself to accept Merton’s words.
But accept them I did because this book opened the floodgates to the truth.
Perhaps I need to add here I’m referring to Diana’s truth rather than the whole truth because, as we all know, one side is only half of any story.
Project forward to the present day and Merton, thankfully, is alive and well.
The death threats he faced both before and after publication came to nothing.
Perhaps the author’s passing, even in a car accident, would have been enough of a smack in the face to wake up the brain dead.
Now it is largely accepted that Diana suffered greatly in the Royal marriage and that maybe, just maybe, our rulers aren’t quite the lovely folk we would like them to be.
Others however hold onto the myth.
As former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil so rightly said in the documentary, subsequent years have seen the Royals rebuild their credibility.
I would add in the eyes of those who don’t want to see. But we are all entitled to our opinions.
They successfully rode the initial storm that greeted the death of Diana in 1997 when the Monarchy was actually believed to be in danger.
The reputations of The Queen and Prince Phillip are largely intact although Prince Charles and Camilla are treated with more scepticism.
Overall the Monarchy is still regarded as a great institution by those who almost certainly still deny the existence of Big Brother.
Yet 25 years on we owe a debt of gratitude to Merton for opening as many minds as he did.
No doubt he did it because it was a great story rather than for the public good – but much good has come from it nevertheless.
Truth has occasionally raised its head above the locked gates of Buckingham Palace in the years that have followed.
But nothing that has emerged yet will fully prepare us for the revelations to come.
That will reduce the mind shift caused by Merton and Orwell to the very tip of an iceberg.

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