A sudden case of collective reverse ferret

One moment wedding bells were ringing. The next, it was all over for Kate and her prince. The <em>Su

Prince Philip told William to dump Kate, according to the News of the World. No, it was Charles who gave the order, said the Sunday Telegraph. Nonsense, the Daily Mirror declared, Wills has a mind of his own. Or maybe, as the Sun had it, it was an amicable parting and he didn't dump her at all.

The crunch for the couple came "last week" (Sunday Telegraph), "last weekend" (Mail on Sunday) or "ten days ago" (News of the World). He sat her down and told her (Mail on Sunday); he ended it by phone (Daily Mirror). No one else was involved (Sunday Telegraph); the prince is "obsessed" with Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe (Mail on Sunday). As for the Queen, she had feared another Diana saga (News of the World); she loathed Kate's mother (Mail on Sunday); she was "devastated beyond words" (People).

It is quite a spectacle, Fleet Street's finest galloping off in all directions at once.

Journalists at the old Sun, it is said, used to refer to any 180-degree change of course as a "reverse ferret". For almost the entire national press, which until that moment was certain it could hear royal wedding bells and was merely waiting for the date to be set, this was a very sudden case of collective reverse ferret.

And the Sun's scoop (for once justifying the tag "World Exclusive") exploded among them on - worst of all moments for a Sunday-paper editor - a Saturday morning. Hardly any time, lots of contacts hard to reach, some of them even on holiday.

Something like panic plainly ensued, and who knows how many painstakingly nursed investigative stories were dumped to clear pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 (plus 8 and 9 for good measure in the News of the World). Spread across them in their place was a riot of explanations for the royal - sorry, Royal - break-up, all mutually contradictory and all offered to the readers with the same air of brazen certainty.

The sources for these stories were as varied as they were anonymous. The Sun had relied upon "a close friend of the couple" and the Sundays spoke to many other such "friends" (or possibly the same one many times over). They also heard from "sources close to the Royal Family", "courtiers", "a confidante of the Queen", "a source in William's circle", "one Eton contemporary" of William's, "one Royal source", "another confidant", "senior Royal aides", "an insider" and even, in the case of the venerable James Whitaker, writing in the Sunday Mirror, "a close relative of HM".

And what did this army of high-class Deep Throats come up with? Probably the most remarkable claims came from the News of the World, which described a royal summit meeting where the decision was made, and provided supposedly verbatim exchanges between Philip, the Queen and William, all apparently transcribed by the "senior courtier" in touch with the paper. Even the Sun rubbished this the next morning.

Of the rest, the best that can be said is that they can't all be right, though I suppose, given there are at least two people in this story, and so at least two perspectives, a few of the reports may prove to be more right than would at first appear. Then again, if you spray the target you can't help scoring a bull's-eye.

This is "a world where ethical lines are not always so clearly defined or observed", as a lawyer gingerly characterised royal reporting during the trial of Clive Goodman, the journalist convicted of phone-tapping. And to be fair, it is not just the journalists who can't see those lines: if even one-quarter that number of "friends" really spoke to the papers (and I'd guess that is a fair estimate) why did they have to do so anonymously? How friendly was all that shifty whispering?

Not, it must be said, that the few people who spoke on the record were exactly helpful. The publicist Max Clifford merely did what he does: he publicised himself. And as for young Lisa Agar, who danced with the prince at a Bournemouth nightclub a few weeks ago, she told the Sunday Mirror, "I am absolutely shocked they have broken up," but was quoted in the News of the World saying, "To be honest I'm not surprised."

Honey, I'm not home

It is only recently that the letters columns have come to terms with the mobile phone. Perhaps the users have moderated their behaviour, or perhaps we have simply all become users and don't care; whatever the explanation, people now rarely write to their paper on the subject.

That is surely about to change after news that mobile phones may be killing off honey bees, whose pollination efforts, I read, are essential to our food supplies. I foresee an earnest campaign to curb frivolous phone use and save the bee, countered by a new denial movement, probably led by Jeremy Clarkson, insisting that it's all a politically correct plot by bee-loving, ecofascist, no-mates spoilsports. What fun.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University