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A Royal Butler Disgraced

Being a butler is guaranteed to involve one in animated conversations with Americans fascinated with the possibilities and glamour of anyone close to the wealthy and famous. The lifestyle does rub off, but the whole point about being a butler is that one keeps ones focus on serving: in the end, it is all about the employer, not the butler. That’s why good butlers are always making things right discreetly in the background.

Which is also why I’d like to break ranks and the silence of the profession to set the record straight on one of the ex-members of our profession. Much media in the United States has been devoted to glorifying Mr. Paul Burrell, from newspaper articles to TV shows. I am not going to discuss his reported sexual indiscretions or his self-confessed perjury recently at the inquest in London. What is a concern to the profession is his capitalization on his former employers good name, and the breaking of confidences. In “A Royal Duty,” Mr. Burrell draws upon private letters sent to and from Princess Diana. He claimed, “My only intention in writing this book was to defend the princess and stand in her corner.” From a logical standpoint, this raises some questions:

  1. Does a significant portion of the world’s population actually think badly of Princess Diana, that Mr. Burrell should feel compelled to intercede? My understanding is that she was and still is one of the most popular women in the world. So why is Mr. Burrell tilting his lance at this windmill?
  2. How does revealing the details of Princess Diana’s private life and affairs make people think better of her?
  3. Would Princess Diana welcome the effect Mr. Burrell created on her sons, who have stated of Mr. Burrell: “… abuse(d) his position in such a cold and overt betrayal. It is not only deeply painful for the two of us but also for everyone else affected and it would mortify our mother if she were alive today. And, if we might say so, we feel we are more able to speak for our mother than Paul.”

From other statements made by Mr. Burrell, he published his book because he was angry at the Royal Family for not helping him during his time of need while undergoing trial (for allegedly taking items belonging to Princess Diana). His anger may or may not be justified, but the way he chose to remedy the situation was not the path a true butler would have chosen.

From an ethical standpoint, Mr. Burrell has unfortunately broken the written and unwritten code of conduct of a butler: If every butler made public the private life of his employer, nobody would ever hire a butler.

Put another way, if Mr. Burrell hired a butler (which he can probably now afford to do from the wealth he has amassed of late), would he feel aggrieved or well served if that butler later wrote a book revealing every intimate detail of his private life? It’s the old golden rule at work.

It is for this reason that I feel compelled, in the light of the barrage of media concerning Mr. Burrell’s actions, to reaffirm the basic principle and ethic of butling. It is based on trust and confidence. Writing a book and spilling the beans to the media at every turn may pay in the short term with personal wealth and fame, but the profession is weakened with each such book and utterance, as is the author and the employer.

Without maintaining our standards, butlers will cease to be a profession. This may not concern Mr. Burrell at this present time, but it does impact the hundreds of us making honest efforts at excelling in our profession, as well as existing and potential employers.

If Mr. Burrell truly feels that he is “the keeper of (Diana’s) secrets,” then I invite him to do as he says. While I doubt he will be concerned, I also invite him to make up the damage he has done to our profession in a way that will restore trust and peace of mind among employers.

Mr. Burrell began promoting his Royal Butler wine last year, saying, “I wouldn’t give my princess just anything, and I won’t give American ladies just anything either.” While his sales pitch enriches his bank account, it cheapens our profession by cheapening his employer’s good name: would Princess Diana really lend her name to the sale of cheap bottles of wine?

As a profession, we have treated Mr. Burrell for many years now in the way that butlers will do: taking note but not being so indiscreet as to say anything. However, our silence sounds deafeningly like tacit consent. I want to make it clear that it is anything but that. I believe I speak for the silent majority when I say that Mr. Burrell does not represent the profession. He may label his wine “Royal Butler,” but not himself. He has forfeited that right. There was a time when he was a royal butler, a time, I suspect, when his wealth was in personal satisfaction, friendship, service to others, and pride in a job well done, in the background.

June 2008