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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 13:53 GMT
Harry in the media spotlight
Charles and Harry
Prince Charles's office confirmed the story
By the BBC's media correspondent Torin Douglas

It was, it seems, a story just waiting to come out.

Prince Harry's illegal drinking sessions happened in a pub near Highgrove House where, according to the News of the World, drugs were openly smoked and sold. Many people had apparently seen him drinking there.

Yet until the Sunday newspaper splashed its revelations over seven pages, the privacy of the prince had been protected - not just by the local people who knew what was going on, but by the police whose job it is to protect Prince William and Prince Harry.

Ever since the death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, there have been strict media guidelines to preserve the privacy of the young princes.

'Old-fashioned journalism'

The intention has been to let them grow up in relative normality, away from the prying gaze of the paparazzi and foot-in-the-door investigative reporters.

But if growing up normally in 21st Century Britain means drinking to excess and experimenting with drugs, should the media intervene?

Prince Harry
Harry's privacy will still be protected at school
In this case, the general verdict seems to be "yes".

There has been little criticism of the News of the World which, according to one close observer, obtained its exclusive story through "good old-fashioned, investigative journalism, backed up by affidavits".

No question here of entrapment or secret photographs and recordings, in marked contrast to the last royal exclusive under the byline of Mazher Mahmood, who dressed up as a sheikh to coax indiscretions out of Sophie, the Countess of Wessex and her business partner.

No question, either, of the Royal Family trying to hush up the incident.

Tough rules

Everyone in authority - from St James's Palace to the Press Complaints Commission to Tony Blair, who has had his own experience of the perils of under-age drinking - recognised there was a genuine public interest in the story, overriding the need to protect Prince Harry's privacy.

Indeed, the Prince of Wales and his advisers have reacted as sure-footedly as is possible in such circumstances.

Having been given notice of the expose, they not only confirmed the details but revealed that Harry had been taken to a rehabilitation clinic to get first-hand experience of the dangers of drugs.

When the story broke on Sunday, the media were given access to the clinic and its addicts, to reinforce the message.

Now the Press Complaints Commission has the difficult job of re-establishing the guidelines on the princes' privacy.

Its director Guy Black has told newspapers and magazines the tight provisions on interviewing and photographing the princes still stand.

Dilemma

This was an exceptional matter of public interest, but that doesn't detract from the tough rules that apply to all children while they are school, and that includes Prince Harry.

While he is back at school, those guidelines are fairly clear-cut. But issues of public interest remain.

Will the school or the police take further action? Would other children have been treated the same way? And what if Harry misbehaves in public again?

Harry's folly could also rebound on his brother William, whose privacy at St Andrew's University has been preserved since October, when a TV crew working for Prince Edward's company broke the guidelines, prompting another huge row.

If William were to indulge in similar behaviour, would that a legitimate subject of public interest?

It will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

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