Newspapers received a stern warning yesterday from Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to leave Prince William alone when he begins school at Eton next month.
Editors responded by saying they would do nothing to disrupt the prince's education, but would nevertheless continue to follow his progress at school.
Lord Wakeham said breaches of either the prince's privacy, or that of any child, would be viewed "most gravely" and taken up formally with newspaper proprietors if necessary.
"Prince William is not an institution, nor a soap star, nor a football hero. He is a child: in the next few years, perhaps the most important and sometimes painful of his life, he will grow up and become a man," he said.
"Of course, in one important respect he is different from other children. One day, he will be our king. But that ... is the only difference and it is not one that, as a child, warrants intrusion into his privacy." Lord Wakeham continued: "Prince William must be allowed to run, walk, study and play at Eton, free from the fear of prying cameras. He must be allowed to make mistakes and learn the way we all did, without reading consistently of his successes and failures in the columns of our newspapers."
He said restraint in dealing with the prince would help consolidate industry self-regulation. "This is an opportunity ... for the industry to show it has really grown up, and that it understands the dividing line between rights and responsibilities, between duty to readers and respect to the private life of a child."
He later fended off criticism that by concentrating on Prince William, he was neglecting the commission's obligations to ordinary citizens. "I agree entirely with the sentiments that the PCC is about dealing with the privacy and rights of ordinary human beings, not famous and not great. But there is a tendency for the world to judge the PCC by how it handles the big, high-profile stories."
In a section dealing specifically with children under 16, the industry's Code of Practice bars interviews or photographs on subjects involving their personal welfare without the consent of a parent or other adult responsible for them. Since the commission was established in 1991, there have been three adjudications on complaints made under this section. A Buckingham Palace spokesman welcomed Lord Wakeham's statement as "timely", stressing that it had not been made at the Palace's behest but on his own initiative.
Stuart Higgins, editor of the Sun, said: "There is enormous interest among Sun readers about Prince William and we will report certain events and milestones in his education without any detrimental effect to the Prince."
Piers Morgan, editor of the News of the World, added: "Our readers share the country's fascination in the development of a young man who will one day be our King. I am sure that we and other newspapers will be able to record aspects of that development in a responsible manner."
However, Jake Ecclestone, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, attacked the statement as "foolish and hypocritical ... It seems to me that the Press Complaints Commission is acting as a public relations agency for the Royal Family ..."