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The phoney war over Harry of Afghanistan

While both bombastic defenders and shrill critics of the pact of silence are firing blanks, nobody wants to debate Britain’s real Afghan war

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Free Speech

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There has been an almighty furore over the deal between the British media and the Ministry of Defence to keep secret Prince Harry’s role on the frontline in Afghanistan. But this is a phoney war of words in which both sides are firing blanks.

On one side, despite what defenders of the deal claim, there was no justification for a free media agreeing to such a pact of silence. Sending Prince Harry to Afghanistan was a PR operation, not a military necessity. There are already far too many restrictions on freedom of expression in the UK, without the media volunteering to keep military matters secret.

On the other side, contrary to what the shriller critics claim, this exceptional pact is unlikely to be the tip of an iceberg of state-sponsored secrecy. Indeed in an age of daily leaks, 24-hour multi-media competition and deep-seated cynicism about anything associated with officialdom, the wonder is that such a deal lasted longer than 10 minutes, never mind 10 weeks. (And we might note that there are plenty of stories not involving royalty that our media’s illiberal liberals are happy to see informally played down or ignored to suit their own prejudices.)

Perhaps most importantly, the Harry carry-on should not be the big story claimed by all sides. While this phoney war rages over some stage-managed pictures of a prince, there is no serious debate about the real war being fought in Afghanistan by British and American forces. It’s not just Harry, what are any British troops doing there? Six-and-a-half years after they invaded, that question still awaits serious investigation, never mind an answer.

The most oft-repeated argument is that the pact of silence was necessary to protect the safety and security of the prince and his fellow troops. To which an obvious response might be: if that is your concern, then don’t send him (or them) to fight a war in somebody else’s country in the first place.

The implication of this argument is that sending Harry to Afghanistan was a military imperative for which special arrangements had to be made. It has been talked about almost as if it were on a par with the restrictions imposed on reporting operations during the Second World War. But shipping one prince to a desert is slightly different from the Allied forces’ secret D-Day invasion.

This was not a military operation, but a PR stunt for the government, the army and the royals. We have become familiar with the central role PR now plays in political and public life. Even by today’s standards, however, the Harry carry-on was peculiar – a publicity stunt for which the organisers wanted no publicity until it was safely over. It was conceived as a delayed PR campaign for which they would get the coverage and the kudos only once the prince was out of harm’s way. This is what some might call having your cake and eating it – or given the battlefield longings Harry described in his interviews, maybe that should be a Big Mac.

So we now know that, while Harry was being a hero on his ‘secret’ mission in Afghanistan, news teams from the BBC and other outlets were trailing him around the desert. What the authorities wanted was the right images to boost support for the army and the war – and for a prince with a talent for attracting dubious publicity. That was why military chiefs admitted last week that, even if they could only have got him on to the front line for one day before the story broke, it would have been worth it. In other words, it was a ‘secret’ photo opportunity. Media complicity in PR operations of all sorts is a more contemporary problem than old-fashioned state censorship.

In their desperate efforts to defend such an indefensible deal, some top news editors have even tried to claim it was no big deal by comparing the pact of silence to the way that the media has previously agreed to police requests not to report kidnappings. We were not aware that Prince Harry had been shanghaied by a press gang and packed off to Afghanistan against his will. If anybody has been hijacked in this affair it was not Harry.

The fact remains that, when we are struggling for freedom of expression, the media should not be volunteering to stay silent about stories of public interest. There may be very rare circumstances where such a deal could be justified – the agreement of the media not to report a widely-rumoured story about Tony Blair’s family comes to mind. But that was a purely private affair. What goes on in a war-zone is not. The media often have to highlight stories that have a bearing on life-and-death issues. That is part and parcel of living in a self-proclaimed free society.

So it is right that this deal has caused disquiet among journalists. The self-flagellating wing of the liberal media has gone off on one, demanding to know ‘what else aren’t they telling us?’ and implying that this could be the thin edge of the wedge of state-sponsored censorship. That is always an important question to ask. But we might point out that it is a question these same illiberal liberals do not always seem so keen to ask if the issue going unreported is sensitive to them – for example, if they think it might provoke the ‘Islamophobic backlash’ of their nightmares.

In any case, the danger we face today is not an old-fashioned wall of Establishment censorship. We are a long way from the 1930s, when the government and the newspapers conspired to keep news of the mounting abdication crisis from the public. Now we live in a tell-all leak-infested culture where, as the saga of the government’s ‘dodgy dossiers’ on Iraq illustrates, the divided and disoriented authorities appear incapable of covering up anything for longer than five minutes, and royal gossip is splashed all over the news and, lately, the coroner’s courts.

No, the Harry pact has made such an impact precisely because it goes against the grain of what happens with the media today. A combination of residual royal toadyism, the special status of the army and the desire for a celebrity soldiering story made many in the media willing to do this extraordinary deal. But it is unlikely to set a precedent for the way the press reports other issues.

Fighting for a free press and free speech is vitally important, as any reader of spiked will know. Far too important, indeed, to be dusted off and brought to public attention only in such exceptional circumstances as a prince appearing in a photo-op on a battlefield. Those concerned to open up public debate should widen their field of fire to target the larger culture of ‘You can’t say that!’ now inhibiting debate about everything from global warming to racism (see The New Heresies, by Mick Hume, and In Britain, heretics get a metaphorical lashing, by Brendan O’Neill).

Behind the phoney war over Prince Harry, the far bigger unanswered questions are about the real war in Afghanistan. If the Ministry of Defence is so worried about the safety of British troops there, why doesn’t it bring them all out along with the prince? What are they doing there anyway?

There is an assumption that, in contrast to the debacle in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan is Britain and America’s ‘good war’, launched after the 9/11 terror attacks on America. Yet the Afghan War rather well symbolises the incoherence and lack of purpose in the West’s ‘war on terror’. Those pictures of Prince Harry firing his machine gun into the desert brought to my mind once more Conrad’s description, in Heart of Darkness, of a French warship blindly ‘firing into a Continent’ off the coast of colonial Africa. The way that the top brass have been talking these past few days, as if the central purpose of the British presence is to keep their own troops safe, has only served to flag up the nonsense of risk-averse, purpose-free warfare. Yet these major questions have gone undiscussed in the row over whether a prince’s movements ought to be reported.

Who won the phoney war over Prince Harry? The government and military have certainly got the positive images and coverage they wanted. But it might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. They could find that concocting such a controversial pact of national silence over a PR stunt devalues the currency. Next time the authorities seek the media’s compliance in matters of national importance, who knows what the response could be?

As for the shriller media critics who have depicted the Harry carry-on as if it were the outstanding crime against a free press of recent times, let us hope that they can stop wallowing in their own cynicism long enough to take a more consistent and principled stand for free speech in our illiberal, conformist culture.

And while they are at it, how about taking a more consistently anti-monarchy stand, too? Petty sniping about what a prince gets up to either in a nightclub or a military tent is a poor substitute for an argument against a hereditary monarchy and for a democratic republic. Some republicans have even announced that the Harry carry-on shows that he should never have been allowed to serve in the army. Of course he should. The interviews confirm that he is a born soldier. The real trouble is that he is also the born third-in-line to be head of state in our twenty-first century nation. The problem is not that the prince has been allowed into the army. It is that the army boy is allowed to be a prince.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes defended a Princess Diana documentary on the basis of press freedom, and stood up for the right to photograph and write about public figures – including Prince William’s girlfriend. She also looked at how Princess Caroline of Monaco used the EU to defend her privacy. David Chandler pointed out that Britain’s key weapon in the theatrical war in Afghanistan is the bribe. Patrick West said it was the Brits who invented ‘friendly fire’. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and War on Terror.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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