My Week: Michael Smith, Defence writer, Sunday Times

It’s Thursday 28 February and I am in town to meet contacts. I am just off to have a drink with a few pals from the old Telegraph when the Sunday Times news desk rings to warn me that the Harry story is about to break.

The next half-hour of frenzied calls is largely pointless, given there are two sets of dailies to come before we publish, and we eventually agree to see what they and – just as importantly television – do over the next couple of days.

By Friday morning, it is clear that there is not going to be much left in the pot. There is the inevitable wall-to-wall coverage of Harry. The three pool stories that have been kept apart for the Sunday’s look pretty insubstantial, little more than three lines of the same-old really, and TV has already broken the embargo on the most interesting one. Thanks guys! (I would have used the ‘w’word rather than guys, but the PG editor vetoed it).

PA is promising more for the Sundays from stuff it hasn’t yet divi-ed up, but the simple truth is that there is only one story. Harry has been in Afghanistan. Once you’ve said it, that’s it.

There was, of course, dissent from the usual suspects about how the media had allowed itself to be manipulated. It had, of course, been a concern from the start for those involved in the discussions as to whether it was right to go along with the MoD, not something I would normally recommend.

But the simple truth was that having reported repeatedly when Harry was originally due to go to Iraq that his presence would put the lives of other troops at increased risk, it would have been difficult to argue for the right to report his presence in Afghanistan knowing it might well lead to either him or one of his colleagues being killed.

TimesOnline ring me up and ask me to blog on the subject. I’m reluctant. Friday is writing day, and this isn’t just any week: I am going to be writing several thousand words, most of which won’t get in, but have to be written. Still, they ask me to blog so infrequently, it seems churlish to say no.

I point out that while it is a story of great interest, there is no great scandal in Harry being in Afghanistan, and no urgent need to inform people right here, right now, if it is going to put someone’s life at risk.

As it turns out, loud-tie wearing television presenters and surprisingly few of the media commentators apart, the bulk of the criticism seems rather oddly to be that it is being reported now at all.

Scanning the military internet forums for a new line, any bloody line, the media seems to be under frenzied attack from service personnel obsessed with a whole series of different conspiracy theories. The central theme is the idea that we spent five months refusing to keep quiet about it – odd then that it wasn’t reported – and are now publishing it in order to deliberately end Harry’s tour and put his colleagues at risk.

My favourite was the one where ITN sent Mark Austin to Kabul and then leaked the story to Drudge so it was best placed to cover it, but by now I’m not too sure that counts as a conspiracy theory.

I agree with the news editor that we need to throw it forward somehow and that what will happen to William next is the best bet. I have been told he is going to be put on a ship in the Gulf where he will be on operations but relatively safe – assuming they don’t send him out on patrol near any Iranians.

My more immediate concern is that one of the Saturdays will have the ‘What Wills does next’line. The first editions come in and we’re safe. I go to bed a relatively happy man.

Bad news. The Sun had the Wills line and kept it out of its first edition. Now we are left with whatever Harry says when he lands at Brize Norton. On any other occasion, it would have been ‘I generally don’t like England”.

Strange how people whose very position depends on the vast bulk of the population thinking they’re wonderful can’t see how it might be a story when they behave badly.

This time – that crass remark aside – he’s been doing the right thing, so he gets good coverage. I’m not the hero, he says, the two badly wounded guys we dropped off at Selly Oak are the real heroes. It’s the obvious top line and the reluctance of Army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt to send him back throws the story forward. Personally, I’m just praying Dannatt doesn’t change his mind.

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