AS THE PRESS SECRETARY TO QUEEN ELIZABETH II FOR 12 YEARS, Dickie Arbiter WAS WITNESS TO SOME OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN CONTEMPORARY ROYAL HISTORY. Georgina Langford MEETS THE MAN WHO HAD A DIRECT LINE TO THE QUEEN
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