Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Princess Diana’s taped conversation with her lover marked the first of two significant and embarrassing instances of the press getting a hold of tape-recorded talks between senior members of the British royal family and their lovers. The adultery scandal soon was overshadowed by allegations that members of British intelligence agencies had been involved in monitoring the princess’s calls and that they leaked the tapes for her husband, Prince Charles. The royal couple was in the middle of a divorce battle.

Summary of Event

The August 23, 1992, headline on the front page of The Sun revealed the existence of tape recordings of a telephone conversation between Princess Diana and James Gilbey—apparently from New Year’s Eve, 1989. The story was sensational in three respects. First, it represented a significant escalation of the willingness of the British media to publish material embarrassing to the royal family, even when a clear breach of privacy was involved. Second, the story left no possible doubt that Diana and Gilbey were involved in a sexual relationship that was, technically, treasonous. Third, the story called attention to the apparent vulnerability to eavesdroppers of conversations on cell phones. (Diana was apparently speaking from Sandringham House on a regular phone, while Gilbey was using a mobile phone in his car.) [kw]Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public, Princess (Aug. 23, 1992) "Squidgygate"[Squidgygate] "Dianagate"[Dianagate] Diana, Princess of Wales Gilbey, James Charles, Prince of Wales "Squidgygate"[Squidgygate] "Dianagate"[Dianagate] Diana, Princess of Wales Gilbey, James Charles, Prince of Wales [g]Europe;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [g]England;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [c]Communications and media;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [c]Public morals;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [c]Royalty;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] [c]Sex;Aug. 23, 1992: Princess Diana’s Phone Conversation with Her Lover Is Made Public[02590] Reenan, Cyril Norgrove, Jane

James Gilbey.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The revelation that Diana was an adulterer, although titillating, caused little surprise, and its shock value was brief. The continued erosion of the traditional diplomacy maintained by the British press in respect of royalty caused no surprise at all, and only vain protest. The third element of the scandal, cell phone breaches, kept the story going, maintained its newsworthiness for weeks, and continued to generate speculation and discussion for years.

The Sun reportedly received the tape from amateur radio enthusiast Cyril Reenan, a former manager of the Trustee Savings Bank. Reenan apparently constructed an elaborate listening post at his home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, so that he could spend his time in retirement eavesdropping on noncommercial radio broadcasts. He claimed that he had recorded the conversation between Diana and Gilbey “at hazard,” that is, he came across it by pure chance on January 4, 1990. This date was later shown to be false, however. The published story was subjected to extreme skepticism by other commentators, who immediately began searching for a motive to account for the tape’s release.

In late 1989, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were involved in divorce negotiations, which were becoming increasing acrimonious. The public appetite for details was immense; Charles’s younger brother, Prince Andrew, duke of York, and Diana’s close friend, the duchess of York (the former Sarah Ferguson), had also separated a few months earlier. The tribulations of Queen Elizabeth II’s children were beginning to resemble a soap opera.

For the first time, because of Diana’s complex relationship with the press—who followed her everywhere—the media were willingly being employed as so-called heavy artillery in the developing battle between the prince and princess. Although not public knowledge at the time, Diana had been supplying journalist Andrew Morton with material for a book that would tell her side of the case. In the absence of this knowledge about Diana and Morton, the public soon pointed to Charles, and cooperating government security services—who had been monitoring Diana’s calls—as the person who leaked the tape in an attempt to fight back on the same battleground.

On September 5, The Sun announced that the conversation had been recorded by a second eavesdropper, Jane Norgrove (also a resident of Oxfordshire), who claimed that she came forward to clear up allegations regarding conspiracy theories and the possible involvement of the security services in the initial leak—a protestation that only served to add further fuel to such rumors. The rumors were boosted by an assertion made by a surveillance expert, William Parsons, that recording both sides of an intercepted telephone conversation with equal clarity would be almost impossible and that the tape must have been subject to sophisticated technical adjustment. The Sunday Times (London) commissioned security firm Audiotel International to analyze the tape. The subsequent report claimed that the tape contained pips (data bursts) that would normally have been edited out during transmission, and that there was a “background hum” that Reenan’s equipment could not have recorded, suggestive of a tap on a land line. Two further tapes, of unknown origin, later surfaced in the offices of other newspapers.

The tape held by The Sun began during the middle of the Diana-Gilbey conversation, with Diana complaining about her depression and ill-treatment by the royal family, especially by Prince Charles, who was said to be making her life “torture.” The discussion also touched on the television soap opera EastEnders and Diana’s fascination with her own alleged clairvoyance and spiritual beliefs. The conversation’s shock value, however, came from its intimate tone, enhanced by the fear expressed by Diana that she might be pregnant. At the time of the conversation, Gilbey was working as a car salesperson, but he was the heir to a family fortune made in the manufacture of Gilbey’s gin. He had known Diana since childhood and dated her before she was selected as Charles’s bride, so the intimate tone was not particularly unusual; nor was Gilbey’s use, following common practice among the English upper classes, of the term “darling” fourteen times and by the use of a nickname, Squidgy, fifty-three times. The latter appellation, however, caught the public’s attention. The Sun initially dubbed the affair Dianagate but soon renamed it Squidgygate. A special public phone line was set up by the newspaper for the entire thirty-minute conversation.


Speculation regarding the origins of the Squidgygate tape reached such a pitch that the British home secretary, Kenneth Clarke, issued a formal denial that the British security service MI5 MI5[MIfive] (the equivalent of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) had been involved in the affair in any way, but his denial did not reduce popular suspicion. The affair inevitably added considerably to Diana’s own suspicions, casting a dark shadow of paranoia over her subsequent conduct, including her behavior on the night of her death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

In 2002, Diana’s former protection officer, Ken Wharfe, claimed that his own investigation covered all the parties involved but that he was unable to reveal the details for legal reasons—although he did hint that Diana’s suspicions that she was being spied on had merit—thus further fueling the elaborate conspiracy theories surrounding the sequence of events. The most striking consequence of the first tape’s release, however, was the tit-for-tat release of another tape to The Sun’s rival tabloid, the Daily Mirror. This tape apparently was recorded on December 18, 1989, and included an intimate long-distance phone conversation between Prince Charles and his lover, and future wife, Bowles, Camilla Parker Camilla Parker Bowles. An Australian magazine, New Idea, published a transcript of the Charles-Bowles tape on January 13, 1993, and an international scandal was born.

Charles and Diana became increasingly desperate to manage media coverage after the release of the two tapes. Both gave high-profile television interviews to tell their sides of the story, but neither interview could be anything more than a futile exercise in damage limitation; the harm done to the image of the royal family was irreparable, and Diana’s subsequent life was similarly blighted. Insofar as the private war between the two individuals, the photogenic Diana was always bound to win, in spite of the embarrassment caused by the first tape’s release, but that she had to die to seal her victory completed the lesson delivered by Squidgygate regarding the deleterious effects of media scandal. "Squidgygate"[Squidgygate] "Dianagate"[Dianagate] Diana, Princess of Wales Gilbey, James Charles, Prince of Wales

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Tina. The Diana Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, 2007. An attempt to definitively summarize Diana’s life, by a high-profile journalist-editor and personal acquaintance of Diana who employs a sensationalistic tone throughout the book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jephson, Patrick. Shadow of a Princess. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. A glaring exception to the general run of hagiographic-style studies, written by Diana’s one-time private secretary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Michael. The Princess and the Package: Exploring the Love-Hate Relationship Between Diana and the Media. Los Angeles: Renaissance, 1998. A more cerebral account than the journalistic biographies, attempting to put Diana’s dealings with the press into the context of a more general account of the contemporary production and negotiation of celebrity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morton, Andrew. Diana: Her True Story, in Her Own Words. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. The second, expanded version of a text initially published in 1992 as Diana: Her True Story, which had caused a scandal in its own right. This new version includes direct transcripts of Morton’s own conversations with Diana, which prove that she indeed had given him the information contained in the 1992 version of the book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paxman, Jeremy. On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry into Some Strangely Related Families. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006. A serious exploration of the institution of royalty, with insightful attention to the late twentieth century problems plaguing the House of Windsor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Sally Bedell. Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess. New York: Times Books, 1999. A journalistic account with slightly more pretension to analytical acuity than most of its rivals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wharfe, Ken. Diana: Closely Guarded Secret. London: Michael O’Mara, 2002. The book in which Diana’s former protection officer vaguely endorsed Diana’s suspicions regarding her surveillance by British security and the source of the tape.

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Categories: History