Harry Situation

The British press and “the great silence: redux”

During the summer of 1936, British monarch Edward VIII continued the affair that would lead, later that year, to his abdication of the throne. The romance, with American socialite Wallace Simpson, was widely reported in the American and European press. But the British newspaper establishment, having entered into a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts with the royal family, chose to ignore the king’s relationship, collectively engaging in a reticence that became known, in retrospect, as “the great silence.”

Well, 1936, meet 2008. Yesterday afternoon, news broke that Britain’s third-in-line-to-the-throne, Prince Harry, has been serving in active duty in Afghanistan since December—and, more interestingly for our purposes, that the British army had brokered a deal with British and other media to keep mum about Harry’s deployment until he returned home in April. The Washington Post, in a front-page story this morning, reports the terms of the deal, which “was struck in three meetings called by top military officials between September and December,” and which “every major news outlet in Britain” agreed to:

- In return for the blackout, the military would provide photos and a written description of Harry’s tour after he returned home.

- The media would get access to a pre-deployment interview with Harry.

- The media would also be allowed several “embeds” with Harry’s unit.

- Pooled interviews, video footage, and photographs of Harry in Afghanistan would be made available to all outlets.

- The military would agree to bring Harry home on a Friday, which would be convenient for both daily and Sunday papers in Britain.

- The media would agree not to publish any materials about Harry until after his tour would end in April.

The resulting news blackout was, according to British media critic Roy Greenslade, “an incredible piece of self-censorship.” So incredible, in fact, that nobody, British tabloid culture being what it is, expected it to last this long. (Matt Drudge, upon whom the UK Telegraph today bestows the epithet of “the most powerful journalist in the world” for the deed, picked up on rumors from smaller papers in Australia and Germany, thus officially “breaking” the story. Yep, it’s been, news-cycle-driving-wise, a good week for the media maven.)

Since the story broke yesterday, there’s been much back-and-forth about the propriety of “the great silence: redux.” On the one hand, of course, there’s the public’s right to know; on the other, there’s the safety of the royal family’s “bullet magnet,” his fellow combatants, and their mission in Afghanistan. To which of these do the media owe their greatest fealty?

The many discussions considering those two sides of the Harry Deployment Problem are worth a read and a listen. But they also tend to gloss over the third party in the information-versus-protection equation: the Windsors themselves. Indeed, the media seem, in this case, to have pledged their greatest fealty to the royal family. Take today’s coverage of Harry’s deployment, which releases the reporting the media had been keeping under wraps since Harry’s arrival in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in December. “Prince Hal at last!” Robert Lacey, a noted royal biographer, told the Post, likening Harry to Shakespeare’s heroic warrior-prince. “Now Cornet Wales can look every soldier in the eye. Indeed, he can look the whole country in the eye,” wrote the Telegraph’s Allan Mallinson. “The prince has never made secret his determination to serve on the frontline, whatever the risk,” the Guardian offered. “Prince Harry has fulfilled his dream of serving his country, fighting the Taliban on the front line in Afghanistan,” declared another Telegraph piece. Principles, meet prince-iples.

The Post explains the Afghanistan deployment this way, via a source who quotes General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army: “If he was to have a future in the army,” the general supposedly said, referring to the prince, “he needed to go.” The article itself doesn’t question the validity of that line of logic; nor, really, do the majority of other outlets who’ve been on the story. But it seems fairly obvious that Harry didn’t, in fact, need to go—for his military career (think the army brass wouldn’t have made an exception for him?), or for some greater purpose. Assumptions notwithstanding, the prince doesn’t have a right to combat; nor does his family have a right to put him there. Because the real consideration here isn’t just Harry’s safety—if it were, he could do as he pleased—but also that of his fellow combatants. And, importantly, of national security. (The biggest threat, from a political perspective, isn’t Harry’s death, as tragic as that would be, but rather, his kidnapping—and the compromised position such an event would lead to for the British mission to Afghanistan and elsewhere.)

Indeed, such considerations were ultimately what prevented Harry from going to Iraq this summer: when news of his potential deployment spread in the media, militant groups quickly circulated threats that they would kill or kidnap the prince. Its publicity made the deployment’s risk level, General Dannatt said in May, “unacceptable.” And in the case of Afghanistan, it was the proactive—and protracted—media silence that allowed Harry to deploy. “The consensus was that as army chiefs had decided the prince would go to war,” wrote the British Society of Editors’s executive director, Bob Satchwell, in explaining the decision for that silence, “it would be wrong to put him and his soldier colleagues at extra risk by publicising his deployment in advance.” The media critic Roy Greenslade backs that up in the Post piece: “I believe this young man wanted to serve and do his duty. I think it was right to both let him go and to keep quiet.”

Was it? The “keep quiet” aspect seems clear enough; national security is generally accepted as a justification—and expedient—for self-censorship in the press, and it’s common practice to withhold information to protect the safety of those about whom they’re reporting. Some considerations trump the public’s right to know. But whether it was right to let Harry go in the first place is a different question—and, in some ways, a trickier one. The fact that the media made their agreement proactively—they weren’t holding back reporting on facts, but holding back reporting on the potential for facts—adds an extra “prior” to that classic Enemy of the Press, prior restraint. They could have stood on principle and refused the agreement; Harry wouldn’t have been deployed, which would have been sad for him, but which also would have prevented the need for news outlets to withhold information from their audiences. Satchwell’s claim that “it was an extraordinary and rare display of unity for national and regional newspaper and magazine editors and broadcasters not to report the story” is true enough, but it also has shades of conspiracy. So what changed, exactly, between the discussions of the Iraq deployment and the series that led to the Afghanistan blackout? (The media and military alike had to have realized, after all, that reports of the prince’s potential Iraq deployment would provoke threats to his life.) One has to wonder whether there’s something else at play, then—whether the same loyalty that led to the first “great silence” is also at the heart of its successor.

Take, again, today’s glowing stories about Harry’s service—which are, in their praise of Harry, fairly shocking. (This is the same prince, after all, who has been portrayed in the tabloid press fairly unrelentingly as a party boy—and who has given them plenty of fodder for such a portrayal: see “belligerently drunk” and “Nazi costume.”) Though his desire to see combat may have been genuine—the whole “I just want to be a normal boy” Paradox of the Prince and whatnot—that desire also has an undeniable PR angle. Today’s stories (Harry the Hero, Harry the Real Guy) are a far cry from previous ones (Harry the Bad Boy). And as far as the royal family goes, it may have a proud family tradition of sending its sons to combat—but it also has an image both to protect and enhance. And here it is, sacrificing its heir (the spare one, sure, but an heir nonetheless) to the Interests of Mother England. It all fits in well with Lacey’s Prince Hal comparison: like the one Shakespeare immortalized, the prince being immortalized by those contemporary bards in the press has—for now, at least—shed his reckless youth via that classic mechanism of redemption: serving in uniform alongside his countrymen. (In this instance, however, Henry-the-namesake might be slightly less poetic than Henry-the-Bardified-ancestor. The modern prince is fond of wearing a cap, the Daily Mail reported, that features a decidedly non-Shakespearian declaration stitched across it: “We do bad things to bad people.”)

Whether noble or self-interested, whether Harry’s current play is one of comedy or tragedy, the media are the agents who enabled it—and who are currently exalting in it. And, from what I’ve seen so far, they haven’t explained why; the blanket assumption of Harry’s entitlement to combat seems sufficient for most. But it’s worth questioning the somewhat perverse logic of royal entitlement being a justification for silence on the part of democratic press, rather than something to be railed against. (That logic may have flown in 1936; but haven’t times changed just a bit since then?) There was only one British national newspaper that didn’t feature a front-page story on Harry today: the Independent. Its deputy editor-in-chief, Ian Birrell, explained the decision to Reuters: “We don’t share our rivals’ incredible fascination with every aspect of the royal family’s lives,” he said. And that fascination plays out, oddly, in the last lines of the Post’s piece, which concludes—despite all the other questions and considerations it addresses—with the striking observation that…Harry’s death would be tragic.

Most Britons interviewed said they support Harry’s decision to fight for his country. But others worried that his death on the battlefield would be a terrible blow to Britain, particularly given his mother’s tragic death in a 1997 car accident.

“There is a sense in which these two boys, bearing the banner of Diana as they do, have created a reassuring and cheering partnership out of the tragedy of their mother’s death,” Lacey said.

“Apart from the obvious sadness people would feel if Harry were killed, for the royal family it would mean the loss of this important partnership of William and Harry. It would be devastating.”

Well, of course it would. Does that really need to be made explicit? (And made even more explicit as a kicker to a long, front-page story?) Strange. But strangeness, in this case, is revelatory. The loyalty the media have shown to the royal family in this instance seems rooted in the Post piece’s final lines—and, in particular, in its penultimate paragraph: in William and Harry not just as princes, but as Diana’s Sons—and in, specifically, “the tragedy of their mother’s death.” Many in the British public, after all, still blame the media for their complicity in that tragedy—if not for the Paris car crash itself, then for the human tragedy of the obsessive press coverage that led to it. The press, fairly or not, has never fully been able to redeem itself for its involvement in the protracted tragedy of Diana’s life and death. And, now, here’s a chance to swaddle everybody—son, mother, media—in the soft blanket of redemption.

But at what cost? We’re certainly not in a golden age of trust in the media, after all. While many in the British public may accept their press outlets’ decision to agree to the embargo, news of the blackout erodes that trust—slightly, perhaps, but still significantly. The media may love a good redemption story, but it’s a problem when they become not only the narrators, but also the facilitators, of that redemption. And it’s an even bigger problem if the salvation they’re seeking is, finally, their own.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.