The Kate Middleton affair has put the spotlight on the extraordinary cat-and-mouse game that the press and the young royals play By James Silver, The Guardian, Monday 15 January 2007
Rain pattered on the white canopy over the entrance to Boujis, as gusts of wind ruffled the hairdos of the 30 or so (mostly) beautiful and rich young things waiting patiently behind the rope for a quiet nod from the head doorman, whose name, appropriately in the circumstances, was Paps. It was fast approaching midnight and there was still no sign of Prince William and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, who had turned 25 that day.
Club security staff, wearing dark woollen trench-coats and earpieces, were out in force. One of the few paparazzi who had not given up the ghost yawned like a cat. Another, listless and alone, glared at me suspiciously. In this hall-of-mirrors media story – in which broadsheet hacks are dispatched to cover the excesses of paparazzi, who are in turn part of a media-inspired feeding frenzy feasting on a phantom royal engagement – the paps, under fire, trust no one.
Five nights earlier, Kate and William emerged from Boujis at 3am to a barrage of flashbulbs and heckling snappers. A police van disgorged officers to escort the couple through the baying mob to a waiting car, thereby averting what was deemed to be “a potential public order problem”. But the images published the next morning helped stoke wild speculation that Kate was – after four years of being a royal squeeze – about to become Wills’ fiancee with the accompanying tax-payer-funded protection. The following day’s headlines – “Kate Cops An Escort” (the Sun), “12 Cops Help Wills have Kate night out” (Daily Star), “A Ten-Police Guard for Kate as Engagement Rumours Grow” (Daily Mail) – probably convinced the couple to stay away from their favourite haunt until the media storm blew itself out.
Boujis – thanks to Princes William and Harry, as well as a host of visiting A-List stars – has entered tabloid folklore, while retaining a thick cloak of mystery. Nestled on Thurloe Street, South Kensington, the WAG and soap-star-free club is little more than a tiara’s toss from the French Lycée, the V&A, Harrods and Sloane Avenue and, in the past six weeks alone, has played host to Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Jenson Button, as well as William and Kate. According to one of the very few media figures allowed behind the Boujis rope, the club is popular with Princes William and Harry, and their set, because of its exclusivity and the fact that staff – and other club-goers – are “ultra-discreet”.
“It’s very, very difficult to get in,” says the regular. “The kind of people who go can walk home, if you see what I mean? Inside, it’s run very slickly with a core management of three, led by a good-looking blond guy called Jake, who happens to be [photographer] Norman Parkinson’s grandson. The doormen are ‘on point’ and co-ordinate with each other with ear-pieces, not lumbering like apes in the doorway like they do in most clubs. So the security is excellent, which really matters if you are hosting royalty.
“But what’s really critical to William is that he is among his own at Boujis. There are no hangers-on, no drug dealers, and definitely no paparazzi sneaking cameras in. Famously, staff there will not tip off the tabloids about who’s inside. They are obsessive about it. Instead, photographers will have a long, cold wait outside. The way [the paps] find out that William and Kate are there is because they are constantly cruising around a circuit of exclusive nightspots – including Boujis, Pangaea, Chinawhite and Umbaba – and they’ll stop when they recognise the cars and royal protection officers right outside. Once one stops, they all do. They are like sheep.”
The past few weeks, culminating in the couple’s police escort from Boujis, have witnessed a huge escalation in paparazzi pursuit of Middleton, amid tabloid reports that the couple will soon announce their engagement – a story for which, according to one royal insider, “not a shred of evidence exists”. MediaGuardian has also learned that the couple have twice been the victims of attempted hoaxes, in which people claiming to work for St James’s Palace contacted tabloid newspapers to convince them that an engagement ring was being ordered. It is believed that a forged document purporting to show a ring which had been ordered in Prince William’s name was sent to the Sun, which smelt a rat. Moreover, in a separate incident, a jeweller called palace officials to say that someone claiming to represent Prince William had phoned him to place an order for a ring.
Simultaneously, harassment of Middleton by paparazzi has gathered pace. It began after she left St Andrews University, when she was frequently followed by a gaggle of photographers, who were tipped off by “spotters” placed at strategic locations, as she shopped in Chelsea. However, the situation truly soured in 2005, when a snatched shot of her sitting alone on a London bus was published in a handful of newspapers, which resulted in her lawyers writing to editors, as well as the Press Complaints Commission, to complain that the watchdog’s code had been breached.
Recently, tactics have become more menacing, with photographers keeping up a near 24-hour vigil outside her home and following her to work. Cameras are regularly poked in her face and insults hurled at her in order to provoke a “reaction shot”. It is also understood that the pursuit has become “far more organised”, with paps on motorbikes and in cars co-ordinating via mobile phones and ear-pieces. In the past few days, for the first time, a van with blacked-out windows was used to track her.
News International’s announcement last week that it would no longer publish paparazzi pictures of Middleton has been welcomed by palace officials. But the real test, they added, would come in a few months when the current fuss has died down. Questions have also been raised about what exactly constitutes a “paparazzi shot”.
“It’s not simply about who took the picture,” says one senior source. “The Press Association [news agency] shots outside Kate’s flat were clearly paparazzi photographs because they were of someone going about their everyday life in the street, where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy and no permission had been granted.”
On my late-night stakeout of the crowd outside Boujis, I counted four photographers in all by the club. Two more had apparently just been spotted driving around the block. I approached one. “Have you seen them go in?” I asked. He was an affable guy, who told me his name was Patrick and that he was a freelance. “We were waiting outside her flat all night,” he replied. “They had a dinner party, but most of her friends have left now.” So she and William were still in her flat? “We haven’t seen her come out.” If she is at home, what was he doing outside Boujis? “She might come here later …” he shrugged.
The next morning’s Sun reported that “Wills was whisked from his new barracks in Windsor, Berks, for a meal in London with Kate Middleton. The lovebirds then headed off to a posh club.” Well, if they did go to a club, on this occasion, it was not Boujis. Indeed, inquiries reveal that, contrary to the Sun report, the couple apparently celebrated her birthday with “a low-key evening with friends”, thereby leaving the paparazzi, in every sense, out in the cold.