Press hounds separate the man from the boys

Media - Ian Hargreaves

The Press Complaints Commission is not a body easily praised to the sceptical. Dominated by editors, it is chaired by a Tory lord accomplished in delivering establishment fixes and governed by a rule book designed to deter all but the most determined complainant.

Yet on the issue of celebrity privacy, it is time to acknowledge that the PCC's supposedly hypocritical and ineffectual waffling has had some effect. The evidence? Prince William, Lord Levy and Euan Blair.

Prince William, the subject of supremely spin-doctored adulation on the occasion of his 18th birthday, has slipped out of the news again, as the Palace and the PCC requested. A couple of long-distance shots in last weekend's News of the World of the prince larking around with "gels" and a polo mallet are confirmation of tabloid restraint, not its opposite.

The case of Euan Blair is even more remarkable. Not only did a handful of newspapers fail to publish the story in their late editions on the morning the 16-year-old was found face down in Leicester Square, but none published more than an old holiday snap of him on the day the story broke; and none staked out the Prime Minister's home with the determination needed to obtain shots of the family visit to a London police station to receive Euan's formal reprimand. Within 48 hours, the press had dropped the story.

Nobody, not even Downing Street, argues that Euan's exploits should have been kept out of the newspapers entirely. The manner in which the story was reported also demonstrated restraint (or laziness, were you to take the minority view that here was an important story worthy of aggressive investigation). The Daily Mail failed to harass Euan's school friends in pursuit of their inside story. The Sun couldn't be bothered to reach for its chequebook. Max Clifford, whose offices are just up the road from where Euan vomited on his trainers, failed to spot a business opportunity.

Just about the only piece of competitive reporting detail I spotted was in the Times's account of conditions inside the Charing Cross Road police cell where Euan was instructed to sleep on the floor, rather than risk injury by rolling off a concrete bunk. It's not difficult to see how the paper's crime correspondent obtained that detail, and the description of a custody suite that "reeks of sweat and vomit".

The essential details of the story were common to all accounts. As is normal these days, the broadsheets were a bit cruder than the tabloids, although the Independent's political correspondent, Paul Waugh, appears not to have grasped this point.

Scoffing at the Prime Minister's speech to black religious leaders in Brighton, Waugh noted "a soundbite the tabloids were desperate for, a piece of political candour made in Campbell heaven: 'being a prime minister can be a tough job, but I always think that being a parent is probably tougher'."

The Indie's page-one headline? "Being a prime minister can be tough, but being a parent is sometimes tougher."

It was also the broadsheets that rolled out the bulk of those hideous, earnest backgrounders on teenage drinking, the pontificating doctors and the professional moralists paid to attack the "moralising prime minister". Almost every newspaper thought it worth having someone reminisce about a similar bout of teenage excess, although few could match the irrelevance of Lord Rees-Mogg's incomprehensible account in the Times of the circumstances that once found him drunk and confused on an Oxford college bowling green.

Pretty well all the papers agreed that the incident had done Tony Blair's over-pious image a power of good, in spite of their acknowledgement that this was exactly the line being pushed by Downing Street.

Only the Daily Telegraph broke ranks to lecture the Prime Minister about his "unmanly" behaviour in exploiting his son's misfortunes for political purpose, although the Telegraph also gave us the battiest piece of the week, when Daniel Johnson managed to bring together in a single piece Turgenev, St Matthew's Gospel, Kafka and Ron Davies. The point, I think, was that drunken young men in Leicester Square are in danger of gay rape.

In short, on William and Euan, the papers have "behaved themselves", something which always worries me, but which I acknowledge is, for most people, and certainly for Lord Wakeham, a cause of national celebration.

What about Lord Levy, the millionaire adviser to the Prime Minister who pays less in annual income tax than the average schoolteacher? Lord Levy tried and failed to use the courts to protect his financial privacy, but is still pursuing the argument that the Sunday Times must have committed or collaborated with an illegal act - impersonation - to get information from the Inland Revenue.

The newspaper denies impersonation - no doubt a "source" made the necessary documents available to the paper in return for an appropriate consideration - and justifies operating at the margin of journalistic propriety because of the undeniable public interest in interrogating new Labour's sincerity about impeding tax avoidance. Unlike Euan and Wills, this story will not go away.

A world in which a rich government adviser cannot shut down a story about his fiscal morality but where famous parents can subdue press interest in their teenage children is better than a world in which the opposite is the case.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky