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15th April 2001
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Lankan link in Sophiegate 

It's the PR disaster that rocked Britain and the monarchy and cost Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, her job. Roy Greenslade reports. 

Hang on a moment! Have Britain's newspapers really devoted countless pages for several days to trivial statements made - and, in some instances, not made - by the wife of the fourth child of the monarch? Oh yes, they have. 

Compared to the previous taped royal intimacies of Camillagate and Squidgygate, Sophiegate is tame stuff, but it illustrates two truths, palatable or unpalatable, according to one's views on royalty. One, the royal family's public standing is now so fragile that it can be destabilised by a couple of Sunday tabloids in pursuit of a minor indiscretion by a woman married to the seventh in line to the throne. Two, the press, suffering from a post-Diana dearth of palace tittle-tattle, will now pull at any thread in the royal fabric in its desperation for headlines. 

The saga began towards the end of February at R-JH, the public relations company run by the Countess of Wessex and Murray Harkin. A disaffected employee, account manager Kishan Athulathmudali, decided he had an explosive inside story to tell. 

There are two contrasting versions of what happened next and since each side swears theirs is the correct one, I'll report both. 

According to the News of the World, Kishan first contacted its investigations department, headed by Mazher Mahmood. He didn't ask for money. He just wanted the world to know that the Countess was using her royal connections to drum up business for her company. Then, at some time during the debriefing process, Kishan took fright and decamped to the welcoming arms of PR guru Max Clifford. 

According to Clifford, confirmed in Kishan's legal deposition sent to R-JH lawyers, Kishan went straight to him almost seven weeks ago, long before he met Mahmood. He listened to Kishan's story and thought the most appropriate paper to run it was the Mail on Sunday. The paper's chief reporter, Fiona Barton, then spent three hours with Kishan at Clifford's West End office and, some days later, Clifford was surprised when the MoS rejected the idea of buying the story. Evidently, Barton did not want to rely on Kishan as a witness. Clifford then introduced Kishan to Mahmood, and both parties agree on what happened from this point on: Kishan spoke not only of the Countess trading on her royal links, but also made accusations about Harkin's private life. 

Mahmood's team of spies and assorted poseurs then set about pulling off one of their notorious sting operations. Their bait: a potentially lucrative deal to promote a new leisure centre in Dubai. Their main target: Harkin. Their public-interest defence for using subterfuge: if what was alleged was true, he was not an appropriate person to work with a royal. Inside R-JH, the path was smoothed by Kishan, who assured Harkin and Sophie Rhys-Jones that he had checked the fake sheikh's bona fides. 
There were two hotel meetings in early March between the robed "Sheikh Mohammed" - one of Mahmood's cronies - and Harkin, but he wasn't lured into making any sensational incriminating statements. 

A frustrated Mahmood, playing the role of the sheikh's assistant, pushed Harkin hard. But Harkin just "wouldn't play". He had not said anything good enough to publish. Then he suddenly gave the gloomy eavesdroppers a reason to smile. Next time we meet, he suggested, perhaps the Countess should come along. 

Mahmood quickly organised lunch at the Dorchester Hotel on March 14, and the single prior request made by R-JH was a fax of the menu. Harkin and Rhys-Jones were still reliant on Kishan's word, and the only means they had of contacting the sheikh was a mobile phone number. 

Mahmood was again in western attire, as was the bogus sheikh, who had previously worn a rather fetching ankle-length thawb for the meetings with Harkin. Initially, Rhys-Jones was as careful as her partner, reminding her Arab hosts that they must regard R-JH in the same light as any other PR company. But it wasn't long before she became less guarded, gossiping about members of the royal family and politicians. 

Much of what she said was both indiscreet and crass. She referred to the British Prime Minister as "President Blair", suggested that William Hague "sounds like a puppet" and confided that Charles and Camilla were "possibly number one on people's unpopular people list". These were balanced by very complimentary comments about Hague and the prince. Perhaps her most tactless comment, breaking royal protocol on political neutrality, was about Gordon Brown's budget being "a load of pap". 
Despite her apparent ease at that lunch, when Rhys-Jones returned to her office she was suspicious enough to demand another check on the sheikh and gradually realised she had been duped. Recalling what she and Harkin had said, or what they thought they had said, she then alerted Buckingham Palace. 

Meanwhile, at the NoW, there was, surprisingly, no clinking of champagne glasses. After reading a transcript of the tapes, editor Rebekah Wade wasn't sure the material was strong enough to publish. There was evidence of a blurring of the line between Rhys-Jones's PR business interests and her membership of the royal family, but was there enough? 

She certainly appeared to be exploiting her position, and Harkin had confessed to personal misdemeanours, but Wade was oddly hesitant. Her legal advisers were also worried whether the use of subterfuge might be challenged as "a fishing expedition", and therefore fall foul of the Press Complaints Commission. 

Once the identity of the sheikh became clear to Rhys-Jones, her company's lawyers moved swiftly, pursuing Kishan for breach of confidentiality, issuing an injunction against the News of the World which required the paper to hand over tapes and transcripts. Other papers, as a matter of course, also received injunctions. 

At the palace, communications director Simon Walker called PCC chairman Lord Wakeham in some alarm. He explained that he and the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robin Janvrin, urgently needed advice, so the following day, March 21, Wakeham and PCC director Guy Black visited them at the palace. (Some people might think that an ordinary member of the public would not get such attention from the PCC, and some people would be right.) 

In what was supposed to be a confidential conversation, Wakeham and Black stuck to their usual script. 

The palace had two choices: to let the paper do its worst and complain after publication, or to contact the editor and, in Wakeham's words, "see if some accommodation could be reached". Walker, misreading the advice about "accommodation", then made a terrible mistake. He called Wade and, to her shock and delight, made her an offer she couldn't refuse. 

In return for agreeing not to publish the material obtained at the hotel, the NoW could have an exclusive - and unprecedented - interview with the countess at Buckingham Palace. They would, of course, expect copy approval. Wade agreed, upsetting some of the more gung-ho members of staff who did not expect that an interview with a PR woman experienced in dealing with the press would yield much of a story. 

In fact, Rhys-Jones surprised the NoW's journalist, Carole Aye Maung. Without much prompting, she spoke about rumours about her husband's sexuality, providing the paper with a front-page headline: "Sophie: My Edward is NOT gay". Wade didn't think the palace would approve the copy, let alone the headline, and was astonished when Walker made only the most minor of changes. 
But Walker's headache was only just beginning. He was unaware that Rhys-Jones had written letters to the Blairs, Hague and Prince Charles apologising for what she might have said to the undercover reporters. On the day before publication, Saturday March 31, Walker received calls at about midday from the Mail on Sunday's Fiona Barton and the Sunday Mirror's Andy Buckwell. Both reporters claimed to know of indiscreet statements made by Rhys-Jones, but Walker did not appear to think that either had genuine evidence. 

When the first editions dropped that evening, Walker was shocked to read specific quotes attributed to Rhys-Jones which he had not read in the transcript of the hotel tapes and thought were untrue. According to the Mail on Sunday, Rhys-Jones had described Blair's wife, Cherie, as "horrid, horrid, horrid", had called the Queen an "old dear" and had referred to Hague as "deformed". He immediately drafted a statement denying the veracity of the allegations in the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Mirror and issued it to the Press Association. 

Some time later Walker discovered that PA was refusing to transmit the statement because, as it would upset a customer: the MoS. So he faxed his statement to as many Sunday papers as he could before, very late at night, finally speaking to a senior PA executive who countermanded the previous instruction. 

By Monday, the hapless Walker was in a terrible state. He began to brief journalists about the PCC having suggested the foolish deal, hinting that they might have brokered it. A furious Wakeham hit back, leading to a breach with the palace, only partially healed by diplomatic phone calls to Wakeham from Janvrin. 

There are still many questions left to answer. Was there a genuine public interest that made it appropriate for the NoW to use subterfuge? Was the NoW right to renege on its deal with the palace by publishing 10 pages of the tape transcripts? Why didn't R-JH's lawyers seek a further injunction to prevent publication having issued one a week earlier? 

The Guardian


Sink into difference

By Ruhanie Perera
Madara Hettiarach- chi is an interior decorator with a penchant for sofas. One that has taken her into the homes of the 'rich and famous' and even to more exclusive venues like the President's House (Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya) and Temple Trees. With her special flair for designing, Madara is on top of the most-wanted list of interior decorators. 

Madara's projects include the interiors at Bandaranaike International Airport, Trans Asia Hotel, Pegasus Reef Hotel and Coral Sands Hotel. In addition to that both the Taj Coral Garden and Taj Lagoon Hotel in Male, all have been given that special 'Madara-touch'. 

She was also responsible for the computerised stage curtains at the Elphinstone theatre, a first for Sri Lanka. 

Although to many people a sofa is just another piece of furniture, for Madara it is a passion, her speciality. "I'm not really sure why, but I love turning out sofas," she says with a sparkle in her eyes. 

What's more, her sofas are really one-of-a-kind, made with each client in mind. "I always have a 'look' at the place the sofa is going into," she says, "so that I can make sure that the sofa will fit into its surroundings." She's always open to ideas from her clients and in fact encourages their input. But the ideal situation for her is going into a new house so that she has the chance to start from scratch. "There is so much that goes into deciding what sort of sofa goes into a room. You have to take into consideration the proportions of the room, the type of architecture (i.e. whether it's a modern or ancestral home), the colour of the room and even to an extent the floor. The furniture varies from room to room - for example the dining room would have a straight-backed chair whereas a sitting room would have a more formal but comfy sofa. But, if it is a TV room, then everything changes; the sofa must be a reclining one, which just invites you to sink in.You can even have a sofa in a bedroom designed more like a day - bed made for relaxing," she says enthusiastically. At her own workshop in Maharagama, along with a group of ten craftsmen, Madara custom - makes sofas for her clients, using only the very best of materials. For the frame of the sofa she uses red gum wood, which is then padded up with latex rubber cushions, for the 'springy' feel with imported springs and finally covered with high quality material, which she says can be shampooed and kept clean. No sofa is complete without her personal touch and according to her, "Even little things like the carvings on the leg of a sofa can make that particular piece unique."

For Madara this was a natural career option since as she puts it, "I had an eye for furniture even while I was in school". 

After completing her degree in Home Sciences in India which covered the subject interior designing, she returned to Sri Lanka and started out at the Oberoi as the Executive House Keeper. From there she joined the Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya and finally the Taj where she put in 15 years. For the past two years she has been on her own taking on private projects, sometimes decorating interiors for houses, or larger scale projects for specific clients. 

Looking back, she says that her experience in Nuwara Eliya taught her a lot. "I met many estate workers whose ancestors had been trained in the art of making sofas by the British ladies of the colonial era. This art had been passed down the generations and the people I came into contact with, just had the knack for it. Joining up with them, I incorporated their tips with my skills and that really helped me." With the support she got from the then General Manager H. de Costa, she took on the designing and re decorating of the Grand Hotel. "Once I started I couldn't stop. The completing of the lobby led me to the suites and so on; at the end of it, the entire project gave me so much satisfaction. That really was the beginning of what I am today."

At the Taj, she gained experience of a different kind working with Swiss designer Elizabeth Kerkar who was the interior decorator for the Taj group of hotels. "We hit it off instantly and I think that's the reason why we worked so well as a team," says Madara who feels that her friend Elizabeth made quite an impact on her life. "Under her guidance I really excelled and she is the one who 'fine tuned' my talents."

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