By Michelle Tauber
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

He has faced flashing cameras and a clamoring press corps throughout his 18 years, but never like this. On Sept. 29, before a lush canvas of early fall foliage surrounding his father’s Highgrove estate in rural Gloucestershire, Prince William met a group of reporters and for the first time ever spoke publicly about his mother, Princess Diana. Having previously maintained such a zip-lipped public persona that it was startling just to hear his voice (think the self-conscious, clipped English tones of a young Hugh Grant), the jeans-and-sweater-clad prince fielded a series of questions from a group of 15 or so preselected journalists. Ostensibly there to discuss his precollege “gap year,” William at one point was asked his feelings regarding “recent press coverage of [his] late mother”—i.e., the controversial new book written by Diana’s onetime most senior aide, Patrick Jephson. His answer was surprisingly candid. “Of course, Harry and I are both quite upset about it,” replied the prince, his blue eyes narrowing slightly, “that our mother’s trust has been betrayed and that even now she is still being exploited. But, um, I don’t really want to say any more than that.”

He didn’t have to. His 39-word answer to the Diana question—which, like the others, had been vetted by Buckingham Palace—spoke volumes about the prince’s view of Shadows of a Princess, in which Jephson portrays Diana as a moody, insecure manipulator (see page 66). Although William declined to mention Jephson by name, “what he said was pretty clear-he was referring to the book,” confirms a Palace source. “It was a difficult decision for him.” Friends say that the statement was prompted by a building anger shared by William and his brother Harry, 16, that the Diana gossip mill has continued to churn at full speed, even three years after her death. “It is very painful for them to keep having this stuff thrown at them day after day,” says an aide. Neither William nor Harry discusses their mum in public (“Never, with a capital N,” notes a friend), and they quietly leave the room if a Diana-related story comes on TV. This time William wavered about addressing the Jephson book (“Right up to the wire,” acknowledges a source) but ultimately wanted his voice heard. It was “absolutely his decision,” says Colleen Harris, Charles’s spokeswoman. “And those were his words.”

The prince’s press session was notable not just for the comment about his mother but also for the graciousness he directed toward his media inquisitors. When asked about his plans, the prince—with his father standing a few feet to his left (and 4 inches shorter than his 6’2″ son)—replied, “I just want to enjoy my gap year and hope that goes well. So far, thanks to all of you, it has gone very well.” Later, when a reporter inquired about his treatment by the media during his school days at Eton College in Windsor and since his 18th birthday on June 21, William answered, “They have been very good. I was a bit anxious about how it was going to turn out, but thanks to everyone it really has been brilliant. The whole of Eton made a big difference with everyone not trying to sort of snap a picture every time I was walking around the streets.” Then he added, “I hope it just continues for Harry as well [now that] he is there.”

The big-brother protectiveness is understandable, as Jephson’s book seems proof that, increasingly, the royal family’s private lives can’t be legally shielded from public view. Despite issuing a stinging statement condemning Shadows of a Princess, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles ruled out legal action against Jephson, who had signed a confidentiality agreement only during his last year of employment with Diana. Among their reasons: While confidentiality agreements can prevent former staffers from publishing in Britain, there is no way to stop people like Jephson from publishing memoirs abroad and via the Internet. Charles encountered a similar complication in 1995 while trying to block The Housekeeper’s Diary, a gossipy tome by his and Diana’s former Highgrove housekeeper Wendy Berry, which was eventually published in the U.S. Similarly, 1983’s Royal Service, by Charles’s onetime valet Stephen Barry—the only other exposé written by a former member of their staff—did not bring on a lawsuit because it was published outside Britain.

Jephson’s job in Diana’s office meant he had little contact with William or Harry, but his role as one of the princess’s closest advisers makes his decision to write about her particularly egregious in their eyes. (Following William’s press conference, Jephson issued a statement expressing respect for the prince’s comments but noting, “I am sure that when the whole book is read, it will eventually be seen to be truthful and sympathetic to the memory of the late princess.”) And though Queen Elizabeth hasn’t discussed Jephson’s book publicly, she would have approved William’s decision to speak out, maintains Press Association royals correspondent Peter Archer. “I think she would have watched it [on TV],” he says. “She’s a doting grandmother.”

No doubt William’s endearingly nervous (at first) then impressively self-assured press-conference demeanor gave Grandma plenty to dote on. With the slight slouch of a typical teen, occasionally biting his lower lip, William shared his plans and even indulged in a bit of lighthearted banter with his father—who looked thoroughly old guard in a buttoned, double-breasted suit. When William explained that he had raised $8,000 via a sponsored water-polo match he organized to fund his gap-year trip to Chile, a reporter asked if his dad had chipped in. “He might have helped slightly,” replied the prince. To laughter from the press, Charles smiled and retorted, “I chip in all the bloody time!” (In fact, Charles matched the amount William raised; the tab for the 10-week trip to Chile is around $5,000, and the balance was donated to Raleigh International, the nonprofit group organizing the program.)

For the trip, which began Oct. 2, when he arrived at a mountainous base camp in remote northern Patagonia, William will be accompanied by Mark Dyer, 34, a former aide to Prince Charles and one of William’s closest confidants. The prince will divide his time between community-service work, environmental-preservation projects and adventure travel. “I thought this was a way of trying to help people out and meeting a whole range of people from different countries,” explained William, who in August completed a nine-day observational stint with the Welsh Guards in the jungle of Belize.

Having also recently completed a three-week marine-conservation program (with time out for snorkeling and scuba) on Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean, the prince “is keeping his choices [for the future] very flexible,” says a friend. He claims not to have sorted out his plans for the remainder of his gap year, let alone his life after Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, where he will enroll next fall. “Those sort of decisions are miles away,” notes another friend. Yet by conducting his own press conference at the tender age of 18 (three years earlier than either his father or grandmother first made a major media statement), William engaged in a “coming-of-age ceremony of sorts,” says royals author Robert Lacey. Afterward William got a congratulatory hug from Dad (“It’s indicative of how they are together,” says Charles’s friend Gerald Ward, godfather to Prince Harry) and high marks from the press. By addressing the Jephson controversy, “he has put an end to speculation about how he feels about people writing about his mother,” notes Majesty magazine’s editor-in-chief In-grid Seward. “[In] saying that, he has closed the door.” And, perhaps, cracked open a window onto his future as a vocal, independent king-in-the-making.

Michelle Tauber

Simon Perry at Highgrove and Nina Biddle in London

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