19 JANUARY 2002, Page 10

Did Prince Harry take cocaine? And did the Palace cut a deal to cover it up?


The News of the World, as we all know, is a highly disreputable newspaper. On hearing that it had run a story about Prince Harry's drinking and cannabis habits, many decent people will have felt that it had gone too far in prying into the private life of a 17-year-old boy. But before they condemn the newspaper and its reptilian journalists out of hand, they should be aware of the fact that St James's Palace and the News of the World co-operated on this story, and that a deal between the two parties appears to have been done.

One or two seasoned observers have even suggested that St James's Palace actually gave the paper the story, but this seems a bit unlikely. I don't know where it came from: possibly there were several sources. Once the News of the World had what it wanted, it contacted St James's Palace. This was by no means unusual, since the paper's editor, Rebekah Wade, and Prince Charles's spin doctor, Mark Rolland, are close friends, and have been on holiday together. Another member of this delightful little circle is Guy Black, director of the Press Complaints Commission, the regulatory watchdog. Mr Black's predecessor in this job was none other than his dear friend, Mr Boliand. You couldn't make it up, could you?

Mr Bolland's expert hand can be discerned in the arrangement which followed. The paper was told that Prince Charles was well aware of the problem — so aware that he had arranged for Harry to visit Featherstone Lodge rehabilitation centre in south London after his secret vices had been discovered. The News of the World actually led its frontpage story with this piece of information, and devoted its entire leader column to extolling Prince Charles's virtues as a father, prince and human being, which even tested the patience of a royalist such as myself. It is not too much to say that Prince Charles's reputation emerged from the News of the World's account greatly enhanced, which is exactly what Mr Bolland must have intended.

Some people will have been happy to take the story at face value. Others may have been a little foxed. I certainly was. Why was it necessary to make Harry visit a rehabilitation clinic for heroin addicts if he had only experimented with cannabis, in the paper's words, 'on several occasions', something which, let us be honest, a fair number of 17year-old boys do? Then there was a seemingly incongruous short article on the centre pages of the News of the World under the headline 'Cocaine for £30 at the Rattlebone' — the Rattlebone being the Wiltshire pub where Harry and his mates had made merry with cannabis and alcohol. Why was cocaine relevant? The following day, Monday, the Mirror splashed with the headline 'Harry's Cocaine, Ecstasy and GHB Parties'. While noticeably thin on chapter and verse, the paper alleged that Prince Harry had 'mixed with friends who regularly took ecstasy, cocaine and the designer club drug GHB.'

Did Prince Harry take cocaine? And did the News of the World willingly suppress this information — while leaving behind a vestigial article about cocaine — in return for Prince Charles's co-operation in its story? This is what many rival tabloid editors now believe, and their reporters are scouring Wiltshire and Gloucestershire even as we speak. Mark Bolland's deal with the News of the World, beneficial though it may have been in the short term to Prince Charles, may not have been as clever as it seems. It leaves Prince Harry dangling on a string and exposed to further investigations by the press. If there is more stuff to come out, surely it would have been better from his point of view to have the whole thing over and done with in one go. The News of the World and St James's Palace cannot control the news.

On 3 November I wrote about the numbers game and the World Trade Center. My suggestion was that it suited some politicians to exaggerate the gruesome death toll in order to extract the greatest possible moral justification for the bombing of Afghanistan. At that time the latest official figure for World Trade Center fatalities was 4,655, having fallen from 6,453 on 23 September, which was the highest ever estimate. Several members of the government were still trotting out the figure of 6,000, and Paul Wolfowitz, the American deputy defense secretary, even suggested that the overall figure might be as high as 7,000. In my article I hazarded the guess that 'the final grisly toll

may lie somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000. possibly tending towards the latter figure'.

In fact I was too pessimistic. The official figure has fallen even further than I predicted. A few days ago the number of missing or dead as a result of the attack on the World Trade Center stood at 2,893, significantly less than half the estimate of 23 September. Since the recovery work is reaching an end, it is not thought that this figure is likely to change very much. It is still, of course, appallingly high, and represents one of the worse terrorist atrocities of all time. But it is not so bad as was originally thought — or so bad as some ministers still maintain. For example, on Radio Four's Today programme on Tuesday morning, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, put the number of World Trade Center fatalities at 'over 4,000'.

Meanwhile the estimates of the number of innocent civilians killed by the bombing in Afghanistan continue to rise, though here the American and British governments are very coy about producing their own figures. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has used official Pentagon data to arrive at a figure of nearly 4,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan. It is only an estimate, but Mr Herold does seem to have used cautious assumptions.

Whatever the final numbers, it seems probable that the civilian death toll in Afghanistan will be greater than the civilian death toll in America. Of course, the one is inadvertent (since no one intended to kill Afghan civilians), the other deliberate. All the same, we should have the best available figures at our fingertips when we make our assessment of this war. Was it morally justifiable, especially since the overriding war aim — the capture of Osama bin Laden — has not yet been achieved? The bombing still goes on.

Max Hastings is no longer editor of the London Evening Standard and this column is in mourning. From its very inception, Max has been one of its most important friends. He has starred in perhaps a dozen pieces, and never complained. I feel rather as a novelist whose most indispensable character has been accidentally bumped off. What will we do now? My only consolation is the thought that Max is going to write a column for the Daily Mail, as I do, and, unless I am sacked to make way for him, we shall be colleagues and, who knows, even friends.