Media: Tabloids sniff out an easy way to make a splash

Tom Parker Bowles is the latest newspaper target to fall prey to the cocaine sting. But how scandalised are we by minor celebrities caught taking drugs?
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The Independent Culture
Three weeks ago senior BBC press officers took a call from a tabloid newspaper on a Saturday afternoon. The newspaper had got wind that its rival, the News of the World, had a story about a well-drilled BBC star taking and dealing cocaine.

One of the first instincts of the BBC's press machine was to move a particular well-known young presenter out of his London flat before photographers gathered there when the first edition of the NoW hit the streets.

In the end, the BBC decided against moving him and it turned out not to be that presenter who was the focus of the NoW story. It was veteran Radio 2 DJ, Johnnie Walker.

But given the way the cocaine sting has come to dominate the tabloid front pages, the young star with a reputation for partying can probably look forward to at least one late-night move some time soon.

The latest victim of the tabloids' new fondness for cocaine was Tom Parker Bowles, godson of the Prince of Wales. His appearance in first The Sunday Times, and then later editions of the NoW on Sunday, makes him the fourth celebrity to be exposed for cocaine use in the last six months.

Like Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, Parker Bowles seems to have been initially betrayed by a friend. Certainly, someone who was at a party with him a week last Friday went to the papers "because of his [Parker Bowles's] closeness to Prince William" and so his great friend might "slow down and wean himself off drugs" claimed The Sunday Times.

In fact, The Sunday Times came to have the story because this so-called friend was hawking his expose around Fleet Street to anyone who would listen. The Sunday Times contacted him and extracted enough to put together a story.

The NoW, which believed it had an exclusive, had already dispatched a reporter, Nadia Cohen, to Cannes where Camilla's son is working at the film festival as a publicist. She employed the honey trap previously used by The Mirror's Dawn Alford on William Straw - which is when an attractive female reporter asks if the target can help her get some drugs. He didn't, but admitted using them and the NoW had stood up its story.

"We tried to spoof the rest of the pack with a lesser story for our first edition," said a NoW insider, "but the story had already done the rounds too much and The Sunday Times was able to cobble something together on Saturday."

The appeal of the cocaine sting, and the explanation for the current explosion in stories, is the fact that it is just so easy for a newspaper to pull off. In the Bacon and Parker Bowles stories, a friend called up and dropped the celebrity in it.

In a variation on the honey trap, the other pattern is for the NoW's chief reporter Mazher Mahmood to imitate an Arab Prince looking to buy cocaine from the target. This is what led to the downfall of actor John Alford from London's Burning, who faces a jail sentence after meeting Mr Mahmood, and Johnnie Walker, who is currently suspended from his radio show.

Most of these cocaine revelations are anything but. "Given the circumstances of Tom Parker Bowles's life it would be a surprise if he didn't take cocaine," said the deputy editor of one national newspaper yesterday. "He works in the film industry. He is the product of one of the most famously dysfunctional families in Britain, the son of a man publicly cuckolded by the heir to the throne who has probably heard tape recordings of his mother and her lover with her complaining about having to attend his birthday party."

To crown it all, it wasn't as if this is Tom Parker Bowles's first drug- related press appearance. He was cautioned in 1995 for possession of ecstasy and cannabis.

"Most of the stories need an extra hook," said one tabloid showbusiness reporter yesterday. "It's not enough to have `a celebrity takes cocaine' as your story, instead, like Richard Bacon, you need the fact that he is presenting a children's TV programme, particularly an institution like Blue Peter, to make it work. In the case of Tom Parker Bowles, it's not just that he's Camilla's son, it's the fact that he's friendly with the person who is second-in-line to the throne."

The need for a respectable institution to be linked to the story explains why the BBC feels particularly besieged at the moment. There is even a rumour currently doing the rounds that a senior BBC executive at the very top of the corporation is being targeted by a tabloid newspaper.

Yet it is debatable if a Radio 2 disc jockey using drugs amounts to the corruption of a national institution.

Instead, it may be that the cocaine story has had to be employed by the tabloids because of the declining power of the infidelity story. Stars' marriages collapsing is one of the few things less surprising than the fact that certain stars take drugs. The kiss-and-tell has little power to shock and surprise any more, even if it is obviously not about to die out - it still provides too much voyeuristic pleasure to readers.

Drug-taking, however, is illegal; adultery and homosexuality, the one- time mainstays of the Sunday morning splash, no longer have the same shock value.

And given the tabloids' love of the sting operation, drug-taking can be elevated to drug-dealing if the reporter can persuade the target to sell or buy them some.

To most ordinary people, someone getting a small quantity of drugs, then selling it on to a friend for the same price they paid for it, is not the same as organised dealing. But a self-justifying tabloid can drum up some phoney outrage at the thought of the friendly face on the telly who is actually an "evil dealer".

But much more than the law, or the facility it gives for phoney outrage, the coke story is popular because there are so many celebrities who can be caught.

Late in the night at the Edinburgh Television Festival two years ago, delegates propping up the bar of the George Hotel where the festival is based were shocked to see four uniformed policemen troop into the gents' toilets. They were not looking to break up a fight between some hardmen of the television world. Instead, they knew there was a media conference on and opportunistically decided to have a look in the loos for anyone having a quick line. Such is the reputation of the media, and it is not entirely undeserved.

Thanks to cases as jaw-droppingly surprising as Frank Bough's, and utterly predictable ones like Steve Coogan's, celebrity and cocaine are axiomatically linked. Not only in the minds of newspaper readers, but pretty much in the minds of celebrities.

Dr Adam Winstock, of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley Hospital in London, believes that you can see common sense reasons why cocaine appeals to people in the media: "You can hypothesise that here you have people who have fragile egos, who are always judged on their most recent work and this is a drug that can give them confidence. Also, those sorts of professions are ones which require plenty of social interaction. Often involving lots of alcohol and late nights. Cocaine allows you to drink more without becoming intoxicated and can make you verbose and appear confident."

In fact, because of its very popularity, there are signs that the cocaine story may have a limited shelf-life. For starters it is not the status- filled drug taken just by film stars that it once was. "It has fallen pretty rapidly in price," says Greg Poulter, of the drug charity Release. "Eighteen months ago a gram would have cost you between pounds 60 and pounds 80. Now it is down to between pounds 40 and pounds 60 without any diminution in the quality."

Dr Winstock agrees that the drug's exclusive reputation is unwarranted: "Coke as a champagne drug was pretty much blown away by the early-Nineties. In a recent study of 200 regular clubbers from all walks of life, 70 per cent had been found to have taken cocaine. Among university students, a study found around a third had tried it."

So if your readers are using it, they are less likely to be stunned or worried by revelations about it.

"Doing cocaine is really only going to hurt the career of a certain type of celebrity," said one showbusiness publicist yesterday. "An older star like a Bough or a Walker may have a harder time recovering from it, but if you're trying to appeal to an audience of under-40s, it has less impact.

"Richard Bacon is already back on TV with The Big Breakfast and I've got a couple of junior stars who frankly I'd quite like to see busted so it would help me get their names in the paper."

And if the current trend continues, it is likely that his prayers will be answered.