Asia Crisis

Media's embargo on "Harry's war" sparks debate

LONDON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Now the world knows Britain's Prince Harry is in Afghanistan, the question on many lips is whether it was right for the media to keep quiet about it for so long.

Journalists are accustomed to embargoes -- almost every day newspapers, newswires, radio and TV stations agree with governments, central banks and companies to release information only at a specific time to make it available to all at once.

In the case of Prince Harry's frontline role in Afghanistan, the embargo just went on for a lot longer than normal -- in the end, for a surprisingly enduring 10 weeks.

In a series of meetings at the Ministry of Defence late last year, British media and selected international outlets agreed not to report Harry's deployment in exchange for getting regular pictures, video and text of his day-to-day activities once the planned four-month assignment was completed.

There was a reluctance to sign up to such a deal, and an expectation among many that the "understanding", as it was called, would inevitably, rapidly be broken given the nature of Britain's cut-throat, "exclusive-or-nothing" tabloid press.

But once everyone was on board it was a case of seeing who would blink first and if no one did, then the agreement might just end up working in everyone's interests -- the Ministry of Defence, the media, Harry and the soldiers fighting alongside him, and the public who would read and hear all about it.

In the end, those who were party to the understanding stuck by it, but word leaked out and rumours slowly spread.

An Australian Web site got wind of something in January, but not enough to make it stick.

German newspaper Bild ran a gossip item on Wednesday, but again the Ministry of Defence hoped the chatter would quickly die down. Until the U.S. Drudge Report blog picked it up.

"Once Drudge had it, it went global and the agreement was basically over," the Ministry of Defence said on Friday.


In the hours since the story broke, commentators -- even some whose own organisations signed up to the deal -- have questioned whether it was right.

Jon Snow, the presenter of television's Channel 4 news, wrote in his blog that the affair could be damaging for media credibility.

"One wonders whether viewers, readers and listeners will ever want to trust media bosses again," he wrote. On BBC radio on Friday he questioned whether more time and effort hadn't been spent covering the "Harry story" than the more important issues about exactly what is going on in the Afghanistan conflict.

Tessa Mayes, a media commentator at Spiked Online, accused the media of doing special deals with the royals, that might have been okay when they were young, but were not acceptable now.

"They are not children now, they are adults, and we should not be doing backroom deals with royalty," she told Sky TV.

"The role of the reporter is not to become the informational wing of the military, it's to have a degree of independence."

Reuters, like other major news outlets, agreed to the embargo, seeing it as similar to those frequently agreed on news stories, even if the details were more complex this time. Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a similar-style embargo was maintained on the timing of the invasion.

The only British national newspaper that did not put the story on its front page on Friday was the Independent.

"We don't share our rivals' incredible fascination with every aspect of the royal family's lives," deputy editor-in-chief Ian Birrell told Reuters.

"The most interesting aspect about all this is the breaking of the media embargo by Drudge, but we decided that in itself wasn't big enough to warrant the front page."

As far as the embargo goes, Birrell was supportive.

"I don't see a problem at all. I think the media has acted in a very responsible manner on what has been a difficult situation in which lives were at risk," he said. -

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Editing by Janet Lawrence