Sunday April 8, 2001

The Observer

It is the worst possible news after the worst possible week for the royal family. The News of the World this morning lays bare across 10 pages the full and excruciating contents of the so-called 'Sophie tapes' after days of frenzied speculation.

The pages will make explosive reading at Buckingham Palace where officials will this morning meet to consider an official response to the newspaper's allegations. The news is also bleak for the Countess of Wessex and Murray Harkin, her partner in PR company R-JH.

The paper devotes two pages to the secretly-recorded boasts of Harkin, 37, who appeared to suggest he had used hard drugs.

Harkin is alleged to have told Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World reporter who posed as a sheikh's assistant, that he had taken cocaine and ecstasy. Harkin is reported to have told Mahmood he could arrange for the countess and her husband Prince Edward to endorse various business deals which the fake sheikh pretended he was trying to establish. The Queen is fiercely opposed to members of the royal family cashing in on their position.

Palace officials will also find it difficult to brush aside disparaging comments made by the countess about figures such as Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor Gordon Brown and Camilla Parker-Bowlers and Prince Charles.

Here we reprint an edited version of the transcripts published by The News of The World.

What the Sophie tapes say

The countess of Wessex has ridden roughshod over the convention that members of the royal family should never comment on politics.

Her indiscretion on the so-called 'Sophie Tapes' raises disturbing questions, given her delicate constitutional position and access to confidential information, about her role as a PR company director. Her business partner at R-JH, Murray Harkin, is also revealed as less than discreet in his boasts about royal influence, the Earl of Wessex's sexuality and drug-taking.

In the News of the World 's transcripts, the countess appears to betray strong Tory sympathies, describing it as a 'shame' if William Hague loses the election. She dismisses Gordon Brown's Budget as 'pap', criticises Labour's attempts to ban fox hunting, and accuses former Prime Minister John Major of leaking damaging royal information to distract from his political problems.

The thoughts of the countess and Harkin were secretly recorded at a lunch in London's Dorchester Hotel on 14 March. Also present was R-JH account director Brett Perkins, and two undercover 'fake sheikhs', the News of the World 's Mahzer Mahmood and photojournalist Conrad Brown.

Asked about hunting, the countess accuses Blair of not understanding countryside issues.

The reporter then asks who is going to lose the forthcoming general election.

The countess then praises Hague's performance in attacking the 'nothing' Budget in the Commons.

Asked whether Hague could get elected, the countess says the public do not appear to like him, but goes on to accuse Tony Blair of giving a fake impromptu speech after Diana's death.

When Mahmood suggests that Blair is Clinton 'without Monica', Sophie jokes: 'Well we don't know that!'

In a previous meeting not attended by the countess, Harkin was asked whether John Major could attend an event but he replied that the former PM was 'a bit of a has-been'.

The tapes also question Sophie's ability to separate her business and royal interests. Admitting that it 'does cause conflicts', she says clients are told to treat hers like any other PR firm, but immediately stresses the appeal of hiring a princess.

In the earlier conversation without the countess, Harkin had said the countess might go to Dubai, and 'there's potential for Edward as well', adding that they had already been to Dubai.

They then discuss precisely what the countess would do to promote clients.

Harkin even advocates using royal photographs for other reasons.

He boasts that the countess could secure celebrities such as Sean Connery or even Julia Roberts, describing charity events she has done with celebrities which have been sold to Hello! magazine.

It is at the third meeting, with both Harkin and the countess that the reporters collect some royal gossip. Sophie says the public wanted to make her 'the new Diana'.

Asked whether the Prince of Wales is not 'too formal', Sophie replies that 'he's always been, he likes formalities in life' but goes on to defend him as a fun and relaxed father.

Even on the sensitive subject of Charles and Camilla, she is still forthcoming.

What may hurt more is Harkin's comments about her own husband during the meeting where she was not present, when quizzed on rumours apparently about Prince Edward's sexuality.

He goes on to make embarrassing revelations about his personal life, describing how in the Netherlands it is possible to buy 'testers' of cocaine, and says the fact that cannabis is illegal is 'crazy'.

Asked how guests could be entertained at the sheikhs' supposed 'leisure complex', Harkin suggests a dinner party in Britain for which he could invite 'interesting people'.

The conversation then switches to recreational drugs.

He adds that Sophie is 'just about the purest thing you've ever met' and hardly ever drinks. Laughing, he adds:

The men discuss places to visit in Thailand, Harkin recommending some 'really sleazy' bars in Bangkok. The three then apparently turn to discussing rentboys, with Harkin confiding that 'in India I gave someone like two weeks' pay'.

Useful links
R-JH public relations
Sophie Wessex fan site

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