Media chiefs have defended their decision to agree to a blackout on Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan, claiming that there was a better story to be told if he went to war.
David Mannion, editor in chief of ITN, insisted this was a ‘two-way deal’that offered a level of access plus a better story at its end.
As part of that deal, the media were promised unprecedented access to Harry in Afghanistan and Press Association-pooled interviews and photographs once the blackout came to a conclusion.
Mannion said: ‘Reasonable people would understand the reasons behind it. Everyone’s been very open about the reasons behind it. I think its better to be able to tell the story than not tell it. Then there would be a case to answer.’
Without the deal, it was unlikely that Harry would have ever gone to Afghanistan. Media reporting thwarted his previous deployment to Iraq last year.
Rhidian Wynn Davies, consulting editor on The Daily Telegraph, said: ‘Its pretty clear that media speculation about Harry’s deployment in Iraq led to senior army officials establishing it wasn’t safe to go.
“Once that had been established, there was going to have to be a different arrangement were he be to be successfully deployed. Everyone’s pretty grown up about that.”
Head of the army Sir Richard Dannatt originally mooted the idea last summer but the MoD did not say where they intended to send Harry.
Before the agreement was in place, the MoD had considered issuing a DA notice, but the DA notice committee rejected it, as the story was not a threat to national security.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, was a key figure in setting up the agreement and played a significant role in persuading editors and civil servants that it could work.
Satchwell said: ‘There were some editors who thought it was a great idea and some who didn’t think it was such a great idea.
“But the consensus was that because [Harry] is going we have got to do this for safety and more importantly for the safety of the soldiers around him.”
Fran Unsworth, head of BBC newsgathering, said the biggest issue for the corporation was having to explain to its audience why it kept something from it for so long.
‘There was an editorial choice to be made. But if we felt it seriously compromised us editorially, we wouldn’t have gone along with it.’
Once in place, the first real test of the blackout occurred when Harry and William both did not appear for the Sandringham Royal Family photo opportunity on Christmas Day – with the media agreeing to the MoD line that the two were spending Christmas with their regiments.
US broadcaster ABC, which has a newsgathering partnership with the BBC, questioned their absence and was informed of the blackout.
Unsworth insisted that this was not without precedent, and added that the same considerations went into blackouts on Prime Ministerial travel arrangements when abroad.
‘We haven’t given any special treatment to Harry because he’s a royal,’she said.
The story leaked in an Australian women’s magazine, New Idea on 7 January.
German magazine Bild also published details, but it wasn’t until Matt Drudge’s US website – the Drudge Report – ran the story last Thursday (28 February) that the blackout ended.
The BBC Ten O’Clock News devoted the first 15 minutes to the story on Thursday evening; ITN broadcast live from Kabul with presenter Mark Austin. On Channel 4, Jon Snow lambasted the media for jeopardising viewer trust.
Next morning, The Sun ran a poster pull-out of Harry and nine pages of coverage, The Mirror 14 pages, The Daily Mail 10 pages, and The Guardian and Independent two and one pages respectively.
The Guardian’s deputy editor Paul Johnson said its coverage of Harry was ‘muted’compared to elsewhere, and that the paper tried to use the story as leverage to cover the broader issues of Afghanistan.
Johnson added that the newspaper ‘didn’t believe it was in the overriding public interest to publicise Harry’s deployment”.
‘We argued before he went that he shouldn’t go and that it was a mistake and our coverage tried to reflect that,’he said.
Johnson said that the ‘shallow’coverage elsewhere was in danger of lending legitimacy to the war and that it was a mistake to encapsulate the war in one person’s experience.
On the criticism that the pooled material played out as royal PR, the BBC’s Unsworth said: ‘I suspect that’s a bit in the eye of the beholder.
“There’s a feeling that he [Harry] came over quite well, but I’m not sure we’re responsible for making him come [over] quite well.
‘We definitely weren’t engaged in a PR exercise the way we reported it.
“It was a legitimate news story, and the fact that others have judged it that he came out of it well, is possibly down to himself.”
Comment – David Banks, former editor of The Daily Mirror
Prince Harry is not the culprit here, despite his moodily immature determination to get his ‘sorry ass’out to Iraq instead of letting off steam by throwing punches at the paparazzi whom he deems responsible for his ambivalence about ‘living in England”.
Nor can we blame the hypocrisy of the reading, viewing, listening public who reject censorship and demand of government ‘the right to know’then bleat that journalists are unpatriotic when they deliver unpalatable, unpopular news.
The responsibility for duping the British public by collectively agreeing to ‘say nowt’rests squarely on the shoulders of senior British media figures, both management and editorial.
It is a decision which cannot be justified on the grounds that to do otherwise would have endangered the lives of the prince and his immediate brothers-in-arms: that could and should have been achieved not by the press staying schtum but by Parliament refusing permission for the young man to see active service.
What concerns me is the way journalism hops into bed with the Establishment at the first whiff of a DA notice.
Embedded journalism – whether in a war zone or in Whitehall – is in danger of becoming the norm. ‘In-bedded’ journalism I prefer to call it, most often revealed by a journalist’s warm and admiring familiarity with ‘our boys’ and the use of the word ‘we’ when reporting ‘their’ actions.
Comment – Alex Thomson, chief correspondent, Channel 4 News
Frankly I’m relieved it’s all over. Sworn to secrecy by my bosses, off I went to Helmand as usual, though this time with the ‘deal’in my rucksack pocket.
The agreement to keep Mum about Harry in Helmand signed up between the Ministry of Defence and the Society of Editors and thereby (tumble a few tiers down the food chain here) me.
Not a lot was said about it all out there. As I got to know my excellent ‘media minder’on the ground I kept joking about getting a mythical facility to film Harry in situ. And he kept not laughing at the joke.
All poor Mark could do was shrug knowingly. He knew. Of course. Many knew. Some soldiers and marines told me about it when I was there as if they were disclosing a huge Official Secret. In fact they were disclosing a huge Unofficial Secret. Huge enough, though, eh?
And now it’s all over for Harry, many are astonished it lasted so long. Sources in the MoD are simply amazed. I understand that they knew of the leak onto the Australian website soon after New Idea published on 7 January. The decision was taken – astutely enough – to do, er, nothing.
And nothing of course, was just what happened. You have to say it’s a huge kick in the teeth for all those people who speak confidently of the shrinking world and global village, and so forth.
The story stayed pretty much where it was. And now, of course, the website concerned is astonished – they were not part of the deal and knew nothing about the deal. How could they?
Look now and it’s all covered up with a new site and information. So they cover up after the event. We on this side of the planet covered it all up before and during the event. Didn’t we?
Well, not quite. The News of the World trumpeted ‘Harry Will Go To War’back on 20 May last year. Yes – 20 May! It went on the predict that, once in Afghanistan, Harry would ‘be shrouded in secrecy. He will disappear. It will be a case of smoke and mirrors. There are many options available to stop people finding out.”
You have to hand it to them. Way back in May last year the MoD were already hard at work – possibly even with the Society of Editors that early on. There was to be no repeat of the Iraq Deployment Fiasco. And that pretty much is how things turned out to be.
Moreover, if emails to Channel 4 News are anything to go by, that is how the public wishes it to be. Talk of short-changing the public and queasiness over dong the deal with the Men from the Ministry doesn’t seem to loom large in the public’s anxiety in-tray.