Friday, 29 February 2008

Afghanistan: The Prince and the Press

This was originally published on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 29 February 2008.

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So, Prince Harry has been fighting in Afghanistan for ten weeks, and all the British media knew about it but agreed with the government to keep silent. Now a debate is raging among journalists. Is it unacceptable collusion with the authorities or a responsible approach to journalism in a war zone?

The extent of the cooperation between media and government is pretty astounding. As Mark Sweney documents in the Media Guardian, the Ministry of Defence and all the major UK news broadcasters, newspaper publishers and news agencies agreed a deal: a news blackout on Harry's presence on the frontline for six months in exchange for privileged access to a series of interviews and images of him in Afghanistan once his tour was finished.

This included at least three embedded reporting assignments in which TV and print journalists would follow the prince's day-to-day life in the field. Some of the video was shown extensively on BBC's 10 o'clock News last night, among other outlets. Harry kicking a football with the guys, Harry eating rations out of a foil pouch, Harry calling in an airstrike...

There are a few ways to look at the media angle of this story, which is now dominating the UK news.

First, the easiest thing to say is that there are some comms people somewhere who deserve nice bonuses. From the perspective of royal public relations, this whole episode appears to have been brilliantly managed. You have to tip your hat to them -- or maybe salute. They got exactly the story they wanted while minimising the risk to the prince. Harry will now come home a hero -- a very significant image boost for the prince, who often gets pegged as the wild and tactless royal. Wearing a British soldier's uniform on the frontline may even help people forget the time he wore a Nazi uniform at a party.

And the amazing thing is how long the MoD managed to keep the British media quiet. Sitting on a story like this for ten weeks when you know all the competition has the same story and could run it at any time must have given editors a sleepless night or two.

However, looking at it more deeply from the journalism side, there's a much bigger question of the credibility cost of this exercise. In the vast flow of online comment (left and right), some are saying the extent of the media's collusion -- basically letting the government buy their silence -- deals a serious blow to the integrity and independence of their news reporting.

I can see this point, of course, but I don't really agree. It's not that I think the news blackout represents "responsible journalism in a war zone" -- an argument some are making. I have other reasons.

First of all, I have to say I don't feel particularly cheated by not knowing about this story sooner. Public knowledge of Harry's presence in Afghanistan earlier or later would have changed no meaningful detail of government policy for better or worse. In terms of real effect, it's a side show either way.

Second, this kind of news blackout, if on a smaller scale, is hardly rare. Journalists always know more about a story from their sources than they can publish, and, to be specific, media often know a bit ahead of time when ministers are visiting a war zone. What's unusual here is only the length of time the blackout held.

The correct frame through which to view the editors' decision to go along with all this is to put yourself in their position back in December, when they were negotiating with the MoD. Basically, they had two choices. This was a story the editors could either help make happen and then cover, or undermine from the start, in which case no one would have any story.

And this was a pretty big story. British royals serving on the front lines is not a first by any means, but when one does, it's news, no question about that. It was too tempting for the media to pass up, so they played along.

I don't think this implies the UK media are now in the government's pocket as a result. None of the colluding outlets will feel the slightest hesitation in criticising the MoD or the government on war-related issues tomorrow or next week. This was a very exceptional occasion, and I'm sure both sides in the agreement realise that.

The British media will also think twice before ever agreeing to keep quiet for such a long period again. In the end, foreign media broke the Harry in Afghanistan story -- Australians, Germans or Americans depending on how you look at it -- and that was pretty embarrassing for the self-gagged UK outlets. Their big story was stolen from them, so the lesson learned is: extreme silence doesn't pay.

The best question from the whole episode is probably why the authorities let Harry go to Afghanistan in the first place. The third in line to the throne himself realises he is nicknamed "the bullet magnet" for a reason. The ultimate responsibility for the decision to send him there does not rest with the media.

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