Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

For­mer royal press sec­re­tary Dickie Ar­biter tells of his days with a di­rect line to the queen

Dickie ar­biter is well prac­tised at the in­ter­view game. After all, he was the man re­spon­si­ble for ne­go­ti­at­ing re­la­tions be­tween the Bri­tish royal fam­ily and the me­dia for more than a decade. It was Ar­biter who had to hold the hounds of the me­dia at bay when the mar­riage of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales be­gan to im­plode. It’s no won­der, then, that when asked what im­por­tant lessons he learned from his years of ser­vice, the for­mer royal press sec­re­tary replies, a lit­tle wryly, “Tol­er­ance. You have to be tol­er­ant in be­ing in­ter­viewed, in lis­ten­ing to peo­ple’s ques­tions and an­swer­ing them the best you can.”

Ar­biter, born to Ger­man-Jewish par­ents in London dur­ing one of the air raids of World War II, had never en­vis­aged a fu­ture hob­nob­bing with the aris­toc­racy. Ac­cord­ing to his new au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, On Duty with the Queen, his mother left the fam­ily when he was still in short pants but, be­fore her de­par­ture, she had been a strict ad­vo­cate of the “proper” man­ners and eti­quette that would serve Ar­biter well in his later ca­reer.

“The royal fam­ily didn’t em­ploy peo­ple like me,” he writes. With­out any for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions or univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion, he was “for all in­tents and pur­poses, a hack.” After an early start in the­atre, Ar­biter got his first big break at the Rhode­sia Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, read­ing the news on ra­dio. He mar­ried dur­ing his time in Africa and his daugh­ter Vic­to­ria (now a TV per­son­al­ity in the US as a royal cor­re­spon­dent for CNN and other net­works) was born there. The fam­ily moved back to the UK in 1974 and Dickie be­gan work at talk-ra­dio sta­tion LBC. He was still work­ing that side of the news desk, re­port­ing on royal events, when the palace asked him to switch teams in 1988.

Although he jumped at the chance to work for the queen, Ar­biter says his fam­ily were not ar­dent roy­al­ists, so his royal ed­u­ca­tion be­gan in school. “When the king, George VI, died, that was a sort of turn­ing point for me,” he says. “We were taught about his reign and about the ab­di­ca­tion of his brother Ed­ward, which had orig­i­nally brought George to the throne. My in­ter­est picked up and I got very in­volved with the corona­tion [of El­iz­a­beth II], do­ing projects at school. By the time I was 10, my per­sonal in­ter­est started to grow.”

Ar­biter, 74, has trav­elled the world with the roy­als since be­ing brought on board— lit­er­ally, given that he re­ceived his of­fer of em­ploy­ment dur­ing a re­cep­tion on the royal yacht Bri­tan­nia. In his new role he was re­spon­si­ble for con­trol­ling the pub­lic im­age of the queen (and, later, that of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales). A deep level of trust grew be­tween Ar­biter and the monarch and, asked if the queen has an Achilles’ heel, Ar­biter strug­gles to find one. “That’s sort of sub­jec­tive. If you’re look­ing over­all for a weak point, maybe it is that first con­sul­ta­tion with somebody who she doesn’t know.”

In­deed, the queen has been ac­cused of be­ing “stand­off­ish” in group sit­u­a­tions, but Ar­biter comes to her de­fence. “Peo­ple get tongue-tied when they first meet the queen, and they don’t say any­thing—so she’s got to break the ice. When she’s walk­ing into a crowd of peo­ple that she doesn’t know, the nat­u­ral thing is to say: ‘What do you do?’ That kind of breaks the ice, gives the other per­son a lead-in to say, ‘Well, I’m the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a man­u­fac­tur­ing company…’ and the con­ver­sa­tion takes off from there.”

When briefed on a par­tic­u­lar per­son, Ar­biter says, “She would al­ways have plenty to say. She’s been very good in rep­re­sent­ing UK PLC and she’s met ev­ery world leader—some who are now dead, some no longer world lead­ers, some might even be in jail.”

Ar­biter ac­com­pa­nied the roy­als on their his­to­ry­mak­ing ex­cur­sions to Beijing and Hong Kong. He de­scribes the queen’s 1986 state visit to China as “a ground-break­ing trip” as it was the first time a Bri­tish monarch set foot on Chi­nese soil—just two years after the two coun­tries had agreed on the fu­ture of Hong Kong. Ar­biter was “on the other side of the fence” as a re­porter at the time. But he “went with the Prince of Wales to Hong Kong for two very suc­cess­ful trips [in­clud­ing the han­dover cer­e­mony in 1997].”

In Ar­biter’s line of duty, “there wasn’t a typ­i­cal day” and the job had its fraught mo­ments, in­clud­ing the 1992 fire at Wind­sor Cas­tle. A spot­light ig­nited a cur­tain in the cas­tle’s chapel, start­ing a fire that caused £36.5 mil­lion of dam­age. Buck­ing­ham Palace was opened to the pub­lic for the first time to raise funds for the re­pairs. “I was there within half an hour of the fire start­ing,” Ar­biter re­calls, “and didn’t leave for days.”

The fire oc­curred dur­ing the pe­riod de­scribed by the queen as her “an­nus hor­ri­bilis,” the year that also saw Charles and Diana sep­a­rate. Ar­biter had to nav­i­gate the choppy wa­ters of that scan­dal, in­clud­ing the fall­out from An­drew Mor­ton’s tell-all book, Diana: Her True Story. Even after Diana as­sured him she’d had noth­ing to do with the book, Ar­biter wasn’t con­vinced. “My gut feel­ing was that she was be­ing eco­nom­i­cal with the truth,” he writes, be­fore go­ing on to ex­plain that the mar­riage break-up was “painful to wit­ness, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one watch­ing the re­la­tion­ship un­ravel who wished that it could just be done with.”

One of Ar­biter’s most in­tense pe­ri­ods was the seven days after Diana’s death in a Paris car ac­ci­dent in 1997. He ex­plains how he fought with po­lice at Buck­ing­ham Palace about the flo­ral trib­utes block­ing the gates. “I told [them] in no un­cer­tain terms… the flow­ers were stay­ing.” He worked around the clock, all the while deal­ing with his own grief, and felt com­forted that the late princess re­ceived a fit­ting trib­ute. “I be­lieve that we gave her an in­cred­i­ble send-off, hav­ing planned a fu­neral in only five days,” he says.

Ar­biter’s daugh­ter fol­lowed in his foot­steps to a de­gree by tak­ing the role of spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent for CBS at the royal wed­ding of Kate Mid­dle­ton and Prince Wil­liam in 2011—and Ar­biter knew noth­ing about it be­fore­hand. “Vic­to­ria went to Amer­ica in 1996 to train as an ac­tor. The fact that she got parachuted in by the CBS net­work to cover the wed­ding was purely out of the blue,” he says. “I sup­pose she got a taste for broad­cast­ing from the early days when, if I didn’t have some­one to look after them, I’d take the chil­dren to the stu­dio at 5am while I did a break­fast show.”

Asked his stand­out mo­ment of his years of ser­vice, Ar­biter says, “I’d have to put my hand on heart and say the whole 12 years.” While he doesn’t keep in con­tact with his for­mer boss (“Do peo­ple so­cialise with their em­ployer?”), writ­ing his mem­oir has given Ar­biter a chance to re­live his time with the royal fam­ily. He de­clares that the pe­riod was an in­cred­i­ble ad­ven­ture—not bad for some­one told he was of­fered the job be­cause “you speak well, with a good broad­cast­ing voice, and you are al­ways dressed prop­erly in a suit.”

HAPPY TIMES Ar­biter ( cen­tre) shares a laugh with Princess Diana and Ron­ald Bell, a mem­ber of the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment

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