Refreshingly the Duchess of Sussex wants to mingle with the crowds – but it’s a nightmare for bodyguards. As one quits, Diana’s protection officer KEN WHARFE reveals the problem with minding a free spirit like Meghan
- The departure came after Meghan’s personal assistant also quit her position
- Detective Ken Wharfe was protection officer for Princess Diana over eight years
- He writes that like Meghan, she wanted to get as close to people as she could
To an outsider, the life of a royal protection officer must seem impossibly glamorous — jetting off to exotic locations, rubbing shoulders with famous names and having the safety of one of the most recognised people on the planet in your hands.
But while aspects of that are true, guarding a member of the Royal Family is never easy.
The demands on your time are immense and you can’t relax for a moment.
Which is why I have nothing but sympathy for the young police officer who made headlines when she whisked the Duchess of Sussex out of harm’s way on an overseas visit, now deciding to stand down from her role.
The bodyguard (pictured, left, protecting Meghan in Fiji) quit her position amid claims Meghan finds the security measures constraining
No one knows better than I do the pitfalls and pleasures of protecting a celebrated figure.
For eight years I worked alongside Princess Diana — and before that William and Harry — when she was at the height of her fame.
Since news emerged that the Duchess of Sussex’s protection officer, who has not been named for security reasons, was quitting — she is also leaving the police — some commentators have suggested it must be difficult to guard a royal who likes to ‘go off-piste’.
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This, I take them to mean, is the notion that the Duchess of Sussex likes to interact with the public on her walkabouts, wanting to be seen as one of the people, and that she finds the presence of a close protection officer difficult.
Some also say this officer’s departure is because the Duchess is difficult to work for. I have no idea whether that is true, though she is the latest in a string of aides to have stopped working for her in recent months.
Detective Ken Wharfe (pictured with Diana) writes: ‘Diana was hardly the easiest boss. Like Meghan, she wanted to get close to people and to lead as ordinary a life as she could’
But I have looked at the video of what happened in that busy market during the Pacific tour last year. Certainly both she and the Duchess looked very uncomfortable. In my view, barriers should have been set up in advance.
After all, they knew interest in the Duchess would be huge — she was newly married and newly pregnant. Plus the extreme temperatures should have been factored in.
Also, why was there so little security around the car? It added to the vulnerability of the situation. What this all showed me was a general lack of experience. I also feel this is inevitable and will probably be repeated — because there is so little interaction now between the royals and those charged with protecting them.
There is no doubt that protecting Meghan is a demanding role. I happen to know there are concerns about her dysfunctional family, for example. The worry is that one or more of them might turn up not at the Palace but on one of her working trips, perhaps with a TV crew in hand to film the confrontation.
This, I would argue, is a classic example of where due diligence can provide dividends.
Even so, you can still be caught out and in such a scenario my priority would be to get the duchess away and worry about any embarrassment over the encounter later.
As for the couple’s plan to move to Windsor, that also represents a test. With such an open space as Windsor Great Park around them, it will be harder to secure.
The bodyguard (left, and, right, at Bondi Beach) has resigned following the departure of Meghan’s personal assistant
It will be just one of many headaches for whoever becomes Meghan’s new police protector.
So what about the suggestion that, unlike those in the Royal Family who have grown up with a police officer always at their side, Meghan finds it constraining?
Well, first things first: only ‘blood’ royals have protection from the word go. Princess Diana certainly didn’t.
And while near the end of her life she parted company with her police ‘minders’ — unwisely, in my view — she broadly adjusted to the inconvenience of having me and others hanging around whenever she was out and about.
There were times when we were very handy, parking the car for her so she could nip to the shops, for example, and providing money for those purchases because she never travelled with cash.
That said, Diana was hardly the easiest boss. Like Meghan, she wanted to get close to people and to lead as ordinary a life as she could.
And as for going off-piste, she wrote the rule book, especially in those years after her separation from the Prince of Wales.
To return to the present, I don’t know why Meghan’s protection officer is calling it a day.
But to my mind, the resignation is symptomatic of the new way in which royals and other public figures such as ministers and prominent politicians are being guarded.
From the 1940s until its dissolution in October 2006, ministerial protection was entrusted to Special Branch.
During my 16 years in royalty protection, I came across many of those keeping politicians safe. They were the cream of the Met, highly valued for their discreet efficiency and respected by their protectees.
The bodyguard (pictured right) is the latest in a string of aides to have stopped working for her in recent months
Royalty protection followed similar lines. Officers across both organisations were generally in the role for life, until retirement. Such relationships had advantages.
During my time as Personal Protection Officer or PPO to the Princess of Wales, I was able to engage with a wide circle of Royal Household employees. In my day, I had a bedroom at Kensington Palace, ate in the kitchen with the chefs and chatted to the housekeeper and the butlers.
I used to call the chauffeur a special constable because he was so invaluable. Likewise, I was able to pass on information that I had picked up to the staff.
But not long after Special Branch was disbanded, royalty protection was also overhauled. Four units were cut to two and senior management was slashed.
Money was obviously a driver in these changes but it wasn’t the only issue. Yard chiefs wanted to disrupt the cosy world of the PPOs, whom they believed were too close to their principals.
Throughout my time there was envy — especially from senior officers — at the relationships we built up with the royals, who of course always called us by our first names. They didn’t like that.
On one occasion, Diana was due
to launch a nuclear-class submarine from the shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness. Greenham Common was still in the news and I knew there would be CND protesters.
My advice was that we should arrive at the shipyard by helicopter, avoiding the demonstration outside.
But this brought me into conflict with the local chief constable, who said there would be 2,500 disappointed people outside who just wanted to welcome Diana.
Even though I was a much more junior officer, we had a frank exchange of views until the Princess intervened to say she would be happy to come by road. I knew I’d lost the argument. But security was breached and a protester got up close to our car.
So while I was proved right — although mercifully the incident wasn’t serious — it was an example of the kind of authority invested in a mere inspector that the top brass didn’t like.
Now a protection command unit covers royalty and ministerial protection, with officers drawn from a pool based in Lambeth, South London. From there, they are deployed as required.
This means officers are appointed on a short-term basis — and short-term relationships mean you can’t build the chemistry between protector and principal that is so important.
I know senior members of the Royal Family have been unhappy about this arrangement for some time. They feel the lines of communication and understanding have been lost.
With Diana, I had to apply my judgment based on the risks and soundings I had taken.
So for example, if she wanted to go somewhere unaccompanied, I would say OK provided she ‘paged’ me or called me. It was about balancing her wish for privacy with her security. Happily, we got it about right.
There is nothing wrong with royals ‘going off-piste’ but it did get me into trouble from time to time. On a private visit to the Bahamas, I didn’t tell Scotland Yard where we were going because the Princess didn’t want anyone to know.
But the bosses were not impressed when I presented them with a £3,000 bill for the rent of a house.
Of course, times change. I appreciate that. Royal protection is not about choosing someone who can run a mile in under four minutes or shoot a thousand rounds a minute — I never once drew my gun or chased after anyone. It’s much more nuanced than that.
But my fear is that those crucial working relationships between protector and principal have diminished to the point of disappearing altogether. And that could have serious implications.
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