The revelation that 17-year-old Prince Harry has tried marijuana and underage drinking drew more sympathy than criticism from the British press and public yesterday, and won broad praise for the way his father dealt with the family crisis.
News of the behaviour of Harry, the younger son of Prince Charles and third in line to the throne, caused a media feeding frenzy on the weekend.
According to the tabloid News of the World, which broke the story with the headline Harry's Drug Shame, Harry smoked marijuana on several occasions last summer at Highgrove, his father's country home, and drank heavily at a pub in the nearby village of Sherston although he was only 16.
Charles reacted to Harry's all-too-typical adolescent behaviour by sending him for a visit to a drug rehabilitation centre in central London so he could see for himself the consequences of substance abuse. The visit apparently worked: A spokesman for St. James's Palace insists that Harry hasn't smoked a joint since.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, no stranger to the trials of fatherhood in the public eye, praised the way Charles handled the matter. "I think the way that Prince Charles and the Royal Family have handled it is absolutely right, and they have done it a very responsible and, as you would expect, in a sensitive way for their child," Mr. Blair said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday.
"I know this myself," Mr. Blair said, referring to an incident in July of 2000 when his eldest son, Euan, then 16, was arrested after being found "drunk and incapable" in central London.
Euan had been celebrating the end of exams with a group of friends.
Charles made no attempt to cover up Harry's problems. "This was a serious matter which was resolved within the family and is now in the past and closed," a spokesman for the Prince's office said. Harry left Eton on the weekend and spent it with his father.
Harry has apparently gained a reputation as a party animal and as not always being on his best behaviour.
At a pub last summer, he allegedly called its French chef a frog, using an obscenity as well, after being ordered to leave the premises for acting up.
"It is quite well known that Harry drank a lot and has been drinking underage and causes a fuss. It gets quite out of order," said Penny Junor, who has written a biography of Charles.
"It was only a matter of time before someone was prepared to spill the beans," Ms. Junor added.
"We know from other stories and his associations that he's got a few druggie-type friends around him," veteran Royal Family watcher James Whittaker said. "We know that these are privileged young men with a great deal of money. I don't think they get a great deal of supervision, and I think it has spiralled out of control."
Despite such criticisms, reaction was surprisingly sympathetic. Britons recalled that although Harry may be a child of privilege who attends Eton College and goes on frequent vacations to exotic places, he is also a boy who lost his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, at the age of 12.
The Observer newspaper termed Charles's response "measured and practical" and said he "seems to have done exactly the opposite of what his father would have done," a shot at Prince Philip, a notorious disciplinarian.
A straw poll conducted yesterday by Sky News, the all-news TV network, reported that 83 per cent of respondents said Charles had handled the incident well.
The News of the World said the first hint that something was wrong emerged when a senior member of Charles's staff noticed a strong smell of marijuana at Highgrove and told his boss. Charles, apparently, was not amused.
According to a family friend, Charles then consulted with his 19-year-old son, William, and suggested that Harry visit Featherstone Lodge, a drug-rehab centre in the inner-city London neighbourhood of Peckham, as a form of shock therapy.
"He came for a couple of hours on a day in late summer and talked to several people in recovery, heroin and cocaine addicts mostly," Bill Puddicombe, head of the clinic, said.
"They told him what had happened in their lives, which must have been quite harrowing for him."
Charles Kennedy, leader of the Opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said he hoped the incident would set off a debate on the need to relax cannabis laws in the United Kingdom. "When you see the Royal Family being touched just like everybody else is, I think good can come out of this setback for Harry."