by John C Abell
The professional British media organization which crafted and policed a nation-wide wide agreement not to report about Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan tells the story behind the story today in the Guardian.
A battlefield assignment for Harry had been canceled once when publicity about a tour in Iraq raised fears that the young royal, third in line to the throne, would be personally targeted by enemy forces, thus creating an unreasonable danger to himself and his unit.
There is tradition for individual media members to decide not to report or to delay reporting – a right exercised at a media organization’s own discretion. The New York Times, for example delayed for a year its reporting about the secret domestic NSA wiretapping program. There is no particular quid pro quo in this context; a news organization may consider it a civic duty to delay or withhold, as they do about, say, advance word about troop movements in a war zone. (The Times would not discuss either its decision to hold or run the story, saying it would reveal proprietary information about when and what and how it knew things).
It is also a common practice to respect an embargo imposed by a source – to be the recipient of news but to agree not to report it until a certain time. The quid pro quo here is access to the information itself: if you don’t agree to the embargo, you will not be competitive. And you only agree to the embargo if everybody else does.
The relationship of the media and the government in the UK is very different than it is in the US. There is no British equivalent to the First Amendment provision that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” There are, indeed, several official UK media watchdogs which have the power to rule on media behavior and to impose sanctions.
Reporting about members of the Royal Family is especially dicey, with access controlled and with the controls enforced by the watchdogs. So sensitive is the issue that a senior BBC executive was forced to resign when a program was edited to portray Queen Elizabeth as huffily leaving a photo shoot (she was, in fact huffily arriving.)
Knowledge of Harry’s deployment was a closely-held secret among the British press, and few others, writes Society of Editors Executive Director Bob Satchwell.
Editors across the UK media have known since last December that the prince was fighting the Taliban. Until they were told that he would be going to war fewer than 20 people knew of the plans. The secret was then kept close among senior journalists on a need-to-know basis. Even high-ranking officers, junior government ministers and staff at the prince's home, Clarence House, were not told at first.
The UK media created an ad hoc framework to try to keep each other in line, even though they realized that the pressure to break the agreement would likely come not from a breech by a partner but by someone not party to the agreement – which is exactly what happened.
It was the task of the society to act as a go-between the military and editors and to try to maintain the agreement despite regular alarms when it was feared the blackout might be breached overseas and the internet would mean the UK media could no longer maintain the silence. At times editors could have broken the story with own exclusive but the understanding held. Finally, yesterday that is what happened and the secret flooded out.
The most astonishing part of this story is that such an extraordinary secret was kept for any length of time at all -- Harry was deployed sometime in December.
What did the British media get in return for their silence? The access required to properly report the story when the right time came. “… there would be special access for the media to the prince before, during and after his deployment which could be reported when he returned home, without any interference by the Royal family or the military except for reasons of operational security.”
And what prompted the agreement? Apparently nothing more or less than a desire not to interfere with Harry’s life.
The prince was desperate to join his army colleagues in the front line. Army chiefs wanted him to go to war like any other young officer who had been expensively trained for the task. It seemed pretty clear that his family wanted him to fulfil (sic) his ambitions too.
- Since nobody operates in a vacuum anymore is it possible, even when there is honor among competitors, to keep the story genie in the bottle?
- For all of its efforts did the British press accomplish anything, other than being scooped on a story it had sought to carefully manage?
- Was there a middle ground that would had let just enough air out of the balloon: report that Harry is in theater, but conceal revealing details about his unit and thus his whereabouts?
- When it was reported that Harry was in theater -- without details of his precise whereabouts -- did that necessarily trigger the release of canned materials and attendant disclosures that have apparently prompted his early extraction?