'The Crown': Phone Leaks, Paparazzi Photos and the Royals' Ongoing Fight for Privacy

Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles
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ET takes a look back at the many royal scandals triggered by the tabloids.

An argument could be made that any semblance of privacy for the royals ceased to exist in the 17th century when the first newspaper was published in Britain. The battle for privacy has intensified ever since, most recently and perhaps most notably during Queen Elizabeth's record-long reign on the British throne.

From the tabloids pouncing on Prince Charles' underage drinking (after he ordered a cherry brandy at a pub as a 14-year-old in 1963) to Elizabeth suing The Sun (for publishing a stolen photograph of Sarah, Duchess of York and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, meant to be used on their 1988 Christmas card), there's been no shortage of friction between the royals and the tabloids' relentless pursuit for the next scoop by any means necessary.

By the 1990s, the royals arrived at a critical juncture where a series of unfortunate events -- from affairs, explosive divorces and tell-all interviews -- sent the tabloids into overdrive. Nefarious activity (think "Camillagate") and the paparazzi's ruthless crusades (think Fergie's toe-sucking/topless photos) compounded the royal family's myriad of scandals that became a public spectacle that decade.

With season 5  of The Crown set to broach some of those scandals, ET takes a look back at how the royals handled the fallout then and how they continue to put up a fight now well after Elizabeth's death.

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1989: Princess Anne's love letters are stolen 

For the first time in a very long time, Anne's finally happy following her 1992 marriage to Sir Timothy Laurence at a private ceremony in Scotland. But scandal erupted just three years prior when, while Anne was still married to Captain Mark Phillips and the father of their two children, love letters from Laurence addressed to Anne were stolen from her personal briefcase and anonymously leaked to The Sun.

Anne had been carrying on an affair with Laurence while he served as the queen's equerry. They often met in London or the countryside amid Anne's joyless marriage that spanned nearly two decades.

Editors at the British tabloid decided that, due to the "steamy nature" of the letters, they wouldn't publish the letters out of fear of getting sued. In fact, The Sun even turned over the letters to Scotland Yard after editors considered them "too hot to handle." 

Scotland Yard gathered more than 500 sets of fingerprints and interviewed just about everyone who worked at the Palace, since the only feasible explanation appeared to be that the perpetrator(s) had to have worked at the Palace in order to have gained access to Anne's personal briefcase.

To this day, the identity of the thief or thieves has never been exposed, and this case proved to be a rare instance when the tabloids showed a sliver of decorum while erring on the side of caution. But that wouldn't last. 

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1992: Princess Diana's phone call (aka 'Squidgygate' or 'Dianagate') leaks

The phone call happened on New Year's Eve in 1989, with the Princess of Wales on one end of the line while at Sandringham with the royal family. On the other end of the line was James Gilbey, a prominent figure in his own right as a marketing manager for the motorsports team Lotus. He was also the heir to a Gilbey's Gin fortune.

The call lasted around 30 minutes and The Sun published a 23-minute tape in which they're heard giggling and blowing kisses. They're also fantasizing about spending time together and Diana, at the time very much still married to Charles but living a separate life away from him, makes a mischievous suggestion for when the clock strikes midnight.

Gilbey: "... Darling, I wish we were going to be together, tonight!"

Diana: "I know. I want you to think of me, after midnight. Are you staying up to see the New Year in?"

Gilbey: "You don't need to encourage me to think about you. I have done nothing else for the last three months, hello?"

All in all, Gilbey refers to Diana as "squidgy" -- his pet name for her -- 14 times and "darling" 53 times.

As for how the phone call came to be recorded and then leaked to the tabloids, a 70-year-old retired bank manager and amateur radio operator claimed he intercepted the phone call and hit record on his home setup. Eight days after the infamous New Year's Eve phone call, the man, named Cyril Reenan, sold the tape to The Sun for approximately $10,000.

According to one report, the outlet's royal correspondent said, "The content was so explosive we knew we had a major, major story." Gilbey was confronted by that very same royal correspondent about the contents of the tape, and it's reported that Gilbey "went completely white, got in his car, and drove off."

When the contents of the phone call were published -- and the subsequent transcript and actual phone call recording -- it was reported that Diana was staying at Balmoral and was "shattered," but embarrassed more than anything else. It's also reported that after the tabloids set up a phone number where readers could call in and listen to the leaked phone call, Diana herself paid the per-minute fee to listen in.

The phone call leak rocked the Palace to its core, so much so that the queen ordered an investigation. During the years-long probe into the leak, Diana's former longtime bodyguard and confidant, Ken Wharfe, claimed she told him that "on a number of occasions she felt she and other members of the family were being monitored." He also alleged that "Dianagate" had been recorded by the British secret service and reportedly broadcast on a loop in the hopes an amateur radio operator would pick up the conversation.

Diana had even told her friend, Harper's Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis, that she heard strange clicks and noises during her phone calls. Diana's worries were heightened when it was revealed that the amateur radio operator intercepted the phone call with unsophisticated equipment.

In the months leading up to her death, Diana had "clearly" believed her phone calls were being tapped, according to Wharfe.

For its part, the Commissioner for the Interception of Communications, Sir Thomas Bingham, denied the accusations in an April 1993 report.

"From time to time, stories are published describing interceptions said to have been carried out by GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) or by what are usually called MI5 and MI6. Such stories are, in my experience, without exception false."

And when it came to accusations that MI5 (the British Security Service) illegally installed bugging services without a warrant, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, the commissioner for the Security Service, said "such operations are not undertaken." MI6 (the British secret intelligence agency) was also cleared of involvement in the tape.

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1993: 'Camillagate' (or 'Tampongate') phone call leaks

While there are no indications that "Dianagate" will be covered in season 5 of The Crown, it's a whole other matter for "Camillagate." The entire saga is expertly covered here, but the gist is Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles' phone conversation was also leaked to the tabloids, and it was quickly dubbed "Tampongate" due to this part of the conversation:

Camilla: "Mmmm, so do I. I need you all the week. All the time."

Charles: "Oh, God. I'll just live inside your trousers, or something. It would be much easier!"

Camilla: "What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? ...Oh, you're, you're going to come back as a pair of knickers!"

Charles: "Or, God forbid, a Tampax! Just my luck!"

Camilla: "You are a complete idiot! Oh, what a wonderful idea!"

The phone call is recreated by Dominic West (Charles) and Olivia Williams (Camilla) in the episode "The Way Ahead." 

Much like with Diana, Charles' conversation was recorded in 1989 but it didn't leak in the press until 1993. According to The Mirror, the transcript of the call was published by People in January of that year, just one month after Charles and Princess Diana announced their separation in December of 1992. They divorced in August of 1996.

The Mirror also reports that "the tape sent shockwaves through royal spheres as both were married at the time of the conversation. It also triggered Camilla’s divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles because it made his position as the Duchess of Cornwall’s husband untenable although all three remained friends."

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1992: Fergie's toe-sucking photo scandal

Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson and Prince Andrew tied the knot in 1986 but separated in March 1992. Just five months later, a scandal erupted when her "financial advisor," Texas millionaire John Bryan, was photographed kissing and sucking Fergie's toes while on vacation in St. Tropez.

The photos, captured with a telephoto lens as they relaxed by the pool, splashed across the Daily Mirror with the headline reading, "Fergie's Stolen Kisses: Truth about duchess and Texas millionaire." Among the most controversial photos included one showing a then-2-year-old Princess Eugenie looking on as Bryan planted a kiss on Fergie's lips.

It's reported that Fergie had been invited to join the family on vacation to Balmoral, and it was there at the family's 50,000-acre estate in Aberdeenshire when the family saw the cover of the Daily Mirror. The night prior, royal writer Richard Kay claimed in the Daily Mail that Princess Diana sent him a message the night before the photos were published in the Daily Mirror and relayed the message, "The redhead's in trouble."

Fergie was reportedly asked to leave Balmoral, so she gathered her two kids and her nanny and drove the 50 miles to the airport. Upon arriving in London, Fergie was forced to sit outside the gates of her home as nobody was there to receive her. While waiting in the car, photographers snapped away as she sat and waited.

Fergie and Andrew ultimately divorced in May 1996. 

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1993: Queen Elizabeth sues The Sun

At this point, the monarch was filing her second lawsuit against the British tabloid. According to the BBC, Elizabeth first sued in 1988 for publishing a stolen photograph of Fergie and Beatrice, which was supposed to be used on their Christmas card that year. The sides ultimately struck an out-of-court settlement.

Five years later, in 1993, the queen again sued for breach of copyright after The Sun published a leaked text of Her Majesty's Christmas broadcast. The sides ultimately settled for approximately $231,000, which was donated to a charity.

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1993: Princess Diana's gym photos

The Princess of Wales filed a lawsuit against the Daily Mirror after the outlet published photos of her working out at a gym. The photos were taken with a hidden camera, once again putting the royals' expectations of privacy at the forefront.

The newspaper ultimately was forced to apologize and fork over around $1.1 million to cover Diana's legal fees. And the newspaper also donated approximately $230,000 to charity. As for the owner of the gym where the appalling scene took place, he reportedly refused to settle with Diana. Instead, the gym owner's said to have wanted to take the case to court.

But, less than a week before the case was set to get underway, the gym owner had a change of heart and apologized for his role in the scandal. He eventually forked over the approximately $346,000 he made from selling the photos.

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1999: Sophie Rhys-Jones' topless photo

A topless photo of Rhys-Jones taken in 1988 hit the cover of The Sun just months before she was supposed to tie the knot with Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the youngest son of Elizabeth and Philip. The photo was taken while she was in Spain with DJ Chris Tarrant. In the photo, Rhys-Jones and Tarrant are seen laughing while sitting in the back of a car. And, while leaning against him, Tarrant is then seen lifting up her bikini top.

The Palace called the publication of the photo "a gross invasion of privacy" and described the act as "premeditated cruelty." The editor of The Sun apologized for publishing the photo and offered to never publish another photo of Rhys-Jones.

In a statement, he said, "We clearly upset Miss Rhys-Jones. I have therefore decided to apologize to her and to the Palace."

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2006: Tabloids caught hacking

It all started in November 2005 when the now-defunct News of the World published a story about Prince William suffering a knee injury. While the story was relatively insignificant compared to past royal scandals, inquiring minds within the Palace wanted to know how the newspaper learned about the precise details, including that William pulled a tendon.

Suspicion grew just a week later when News of the World (a tabloid that ceased to exist on July 10, 2011 after nearly two centuries) published a story about William borrowing broadcast equipment from ITN editor Tom Bradby. The shocking part, however, was that Bradby later told the Daily Mail that the News of the World article was published before William and Bradby actually met in person to do so, meaning that when the story published, they had only discussed it over the phone.

Royal officials filed a complaint with the police about William's phone and voicemail possibly being hacked, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the News of the World's downfall, ending a publication that was founded in 1843.

According to the New York Times Magazine, veteran royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire (the News of the World's top investigator) apologized for the "gross invasion of privacy" while standing in a London courtroom on Jan. 26, 2007. They were sentenced to four months and six months in prison, respectively, and fired by News of the World.

A thorough investigation into News of the World ultimately revealed the newspaper had also hacked into the phones of not just the royal family, but also lawmakers, murder victims and celebrities. Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper's owner, promised to fully cooperate with the investigation and called the acts "deplorable and unacceptable."

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2012: Kate Middleton's topless photos

The Palace once again grew angry over Kate's invasion of privacy after a photographer, using a long lens, captured photos of Kate topless while sunbathing on vacation in the south of France with Prince William. The photos appeared in a French magazine, drawing fury from the Palace.

"Their Royal Highnesses have been hugely saddened to learn that a French publication and a photographer have invaded their privacy in such a grotesque and totally unjustifiable manner," a statement from the Palace read at the time. "The incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, and all the more upsetting to the duke and duchess for being so. Their Royal Highnesses had every expectation of privacy in the remote house. It is unthinkable that anyone should take such photographs, let alone publish them."

The fallout was swift following the publication of the photos, as the editor for the French magazine and the photographer were charged with invasion of privacy and violating France's strict privacy laws.  

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2022: Prince Harry sues Daily Mail publisher 

Prince Harry was among a small group of public figures who made explosive allegations in a lawsuit against Associated Newspapers -- the publisher behind the British tabloids the Daily MailMail on Sunday and MailOnline -- claiming they were the victims of, among other things, phone-tapping and other breaches of privacy.

Some of the allegations included the hiring of private investigators to bug their cars and homes as well as ordering the bugging of their live telephone calls. The group also alleged Associated Newspapers paid police for inside information and impersonated staff at hospitals and clinics to obtain sensitive information. They also alleged having their bank accounts and financial transactions accessed "through illicit means and manipulation."

They also claimed "the alleged crimes listed above represent the tip of the iceberg -- and that many other innocent people remain unknowing victims of similar terrible and reprehensible covert acts." 

Harry's latest lawsuit came not long after he sued Associated Newspapers over an October 2020 article in the Mail on Sunday titled, "Top general accuses Harry of turning his back on the Marines" and an "almost identical" article on MailOnline.

The article was proven false, forcing the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline to publicly issue an apology and correction. Harry settled the dispute in October 2021 and the "significant damages" he was awarded from the settlement was donated to his Invictus Games Foundation. 

Back in December 2021, Harry's wife, Meghan Markle, also won her legal battle against Associated Newspapers in a lengthy privacy case.