SoE said blackout or break it on Prince Harry deployment. Some choice!

At last, I can reveal the sub-text of the Prince Harry nude photos story.

As the storm raged, the media – through the Society of Editors – was secretly observing a self-imposed news blackout, guaranteeing there would be no speculation  or reporting of the Prince’s impending deployment to Afghanistan until he actually arrived.

On Friday morning the SoE’s website revealed: “The news of the third-in-line to the throne’s arrival at Camp Bastion in Helmand was announced by broadcasters and on newspaper websites at 11am this morning following weeks of careful planning.

“Pictures and video of the 27-year-old alongside the Apache flight-line were then broadcast and reported worldwide.”

It also refers to the ‘understanding’ the media reached with the Ministry of Defence. The ‘understanding’ – I call it censorship under pressure – has been going on for many weeks now. But then the naughty Prince upset the applecart with those nude photos.

So now you know the real reason why the Prince and his advisers didn’t complain to the PCC about The Sun’s decision to publish the photos, or seek a high court injunction preventing publication. It wouldn’t have been a good time to upset the media, when they were helping out with a bit of self-imposed censorship.

Society president Bob Satchwell said on Friday: “News organisations kept to the understanding for operational and personal security considerations surrounding Prince Harry and those serving with him. They knew for some time that he was likely to be going to Afghanistan but the details were not reported even when the row broke about the Las Vegas naked prince pictures. It would have been so easy to say he was partying before flying out to war but the secret was kept until the time agreed. The public and the Leveson Inquiry should take note of yet another example of how the media behaves responsibly.”

I’m a member of the SoE, and to be honest, this ‘understanding’ made me sick. To me, it’s an example of the media behaving irresponsibly, by protecting a Prince who did absolutely nothing to protect himself or ‘and those serving with him’. The media was dragged into another conspiracy of silence like last time Harry went Afghanistan.

Then, SoE members were given a fait accompli. Either we went along with a media blackout, or we took it on ourselves to break it – and face the resulting storm. Some choice! Our fawning collusion with the authorities back then must go down as one of the biggest public deceptions ever used by the British media (though there were others during the Blair- Campbell reign. Ask Mr Blair for details).

There are rare occasions when the government might cautiously ask editors to cooperate with a media blackout: if, for example, there is a grave threat to national security, or if hostages’ lives are in danger But signing up to an indefinite ‘understanding’ so the Prince can go and play soldiers hardly falls in the same category. In Las Vegas, he gave a two-fingers to the media and others who had agreed to protect him.

He showed terrible judgement. I wouldn’t trust this young man to fly a kite, let alone a helicopter, if there was a bit of skirt or some booze nearby. I believe the MoD abused its position in asking the media to agree to this ‘understanding’. The circumstances didn’t warrant it, and it set an uneasy precedent. And in any case, the MoD should have had the guts to tell Harry: ‘You’re grounded’ after his antics in Las Vegas.

Why should the media protect him when he won’t protect himself? In interviews after his last redeployment in Afghanistan, Harry said that he was ‘just like everybody else’. Rubbish. He’s kidding himself. If he really wants to be like everyone else, he should renounce his Royal title and the privileges – including the media blackouts, the money, the booze and the wild parties – go to Afghanistan and take what comes.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law.

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