The prince, the press and the PCC

Why did indiscretions committed last summer land Prince Harry in the News of the World on Sunday? David Lister on the untold story
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The Independent Online

Now here's a curiosity on which Prince Harry might ponder as he reflects on a fairly wretched weekend in his adolescence. How is it that the former EastEnders star, Ross Kemp, with his Estuary-speak, and Guy Black, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, with his clipped Establishment tones, were childhood friends yet seem to talk with such different accents?

I don't have an answer to that; but I do believe that young Harry should continue with this line of lateral thinking as he wonders how his exploits of last summer suddenly appeared in the papers in the middle of winter.

Other names with which he might want to juggle include that of a man whose face he knows well, Mark Bolland, Deputy Private Secretary to Prince Charles as well as a former director of the Press Complaints Commission as well as the partner of Guy Black; then there's Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World, which broke the story about him. Ms Wade is also the girlfriend of Ross Kemp.

Complicated, isn't it? Indeed, it's enough to drive a young man to drink. And here's a little fact that could drive one to drugs as well. Wade, Kemp, Black and Bolland all enjoy the occasional weekend and holiday together. Young Harry is probably deeply uninterested in that fact. But should the rest of us be concerned?

How, one might ask, can a member of the public who complains to the PCC about, say, an invasion of privacy, have any confidence that they will receive a fair hearing when the executive heading that organisation gets his tan on an adjoining deckchair to the News of the World's editor? I don't for a minute claim that Mr Black, who is emerging as a thoughtful PCC secretary, would be influenced by his holiday arrangements. But there is no doubting that the public perception is appalling.

These holidays, a lad like Prince Harry might conclude, should cease forthwith.

Indeed, the youthful prince might by now also be concluding that these various, miscellaneous facts are somehow germane to the weekend's revelations about his excessive behaviour last summer. He must have noticed that a number of tabloid reporters and his father's own biographer, Penny Junor, have all said that the press knew about his drink problem months ago, and of his father's instruction that he visit a drug rehabilitation centre to hear cautionary tales from addicts. But the newspapers refrained from reporting on any of this, mindful of the PCC's firm guidance that the prince and his brother should be left alone during their formative years.

It was only a year ago that his brother and father threw a party, organised by the PCC, to thank the press for their restraint. What on earth changed, Harry will fret between lessons at Eton.

What seems to have happened is that for some months now, "friends" of Harry have been phoning the News of the World with stories about him (Prince Charles would do well to persuade his son to read one of his favourite plays, Henry IV Part I, which chronicles the dangers of hangers-on and fair-weather friends). But none of these sneaks could furnish any proof, so the News of the World held off. Eventually, someone did come up with proof. Furnished with such proof and at least one affidavit, Wade decided to run the story. We don't know for certain that she spoke to Bolland, but he is known to have a big say in press strategy. Assuming she did meet him, then, after pleasantries on whether Tuscany might be more fun than Venice, she would have confronted him with her scoop.

Several people connected with previous royal stories in the News of the World are adamant that a deal must have been done. Think back to the Sophiegate tapes, when the Palace agreed to the Countess of Wessex doing an exclusive interview with the paper if it would hold back on its secret tape recordings.

It is not just libel laws but a wish not to add to the already excessive publicity for a teenager's problems, that make it unhelpful to speculate too much on the specifics of any deal. But one can assume that Ms Wade might have hinted that she had more information at her disposal that she could publish if she so wished. The Palace representative would have blanched and perhaps said something along the lines of, "Well, if you abstain from mentioning x and y, then we will co-operate on a and b". And co-operation between the Palace and the newspaper there does seem to have been.

The News of the World's reporter, Clive Goodman, let slip on the radio on Sunday morning the words, "Prince Charles told me". Goodman co-authored the NoW's front-page piece with Mazher Mahmood. The involvement of Mahmood is intriguing. If you see a man dressed in flowing robes and purporting to be a sheikh in a Gloucestershire country pub, don't let him buy you a drink.

We don't know for sure that a deal was brokered between News of the World and the Palace. But it is safe to say that Wade knew more than she printed. Yesterday's Mirror had the front page headline: "Harry's Cocaine, Ecstasy and GHB Parties". The story started: "Cocaine, ecstasy, and designer club drug GHB were taken by Prince Harry's friends in his presence..." If Wade had more details about the parties when these alleged events took place, then Bolland and others at St James's Palace would have seen the sense in an agreed compromise story running.

And Prince Charles will have realised that his firm and rapid action would win applause, with the applauders, including the PM, easily outnumbering those who wondered if it was a little over the top, not least from a parent who seemed to have no qualms about his young son living in a home that effectively had a nightclub in its basement ("with a sound system and well-stocked bar", according to the News of the World), and was either acquiescent to or curiously unaware of the fact that the boy spent long periods in the local pub.

The Prince of Wales was praised for "behaving perfectly" (The Mirror) and "responding with great common sense" (Daily Mail). None, though, was quite as effusive as the News of the World – "Courage of a wise and loving dad". That editorial praising "the thoughtful and enlightened Prince of Wales" may have been part of the deal.

But where in all of this does the Press Complaints Commission stand? Lord Wakeham, who lectured newspapers about leaving Harry's older brother alone, has had nothing to say. Guy Black, the PCC's director, has spoken. He says that details of the Prince's story were published only because it was "an exceptional matter of public interest". He adds: "This does not detract in any way from the tough rules that apply to all children, including Prince Harry, while they are at school."

There is no problem with the rules being tough. But there is when they seem to be selectively flexible.