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.)