By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 29, 2008
LONDON, Feb. 28 -- Prince Harry has been fighting on the front lines in Afghanistan for 10 weeks, his presence there kept secret until Thursday in a remarkable deal between the British military and news media.
British military officials confirmed that Harry, 23, third in line to the British throne, deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 14 and has been fighting Taliban forces from a forward operating base in southern Helmand province.
News of Harry's deployment immediately became sensational news here and rekindled an emotional debate about whether the red-haired second son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana should be risking his life in war.
When the news was posted Thursday on the Drudge Report Web site, British newspapers and television stations instantly rolled out extensive special reports on the first British royal to see combat since the Falklands War more than 25 years ago.
Those reports included lengthy taped interviews with Harry just before his deployment in December and last week at his Afghan base. Photos and video showed Harry firing a machine gun, patrolling on foot in full combat gear in an Afghan village and washing his socks in a camp sink.
"All my wishes have come true," Harry told reporters in last week's camp interview, wearing a brown military T-shirt and camouflage pants and noting that he had not showered in four days.
"It's very nice to be sort of a normal person for once; I think it's about as normal as I'm going to get," said Harry, now addressed with his rank as Cornet Wales. "It's much better being here experiencing it rather than hearing all the stories of people coming back."
"Prince Hal at last!" said Robert Lacey, a noted royal biographer, referring to Shakespeare's famous warrior prince.
Harry's military adventures have been tabloid fodder in Britain since last year, when military commanders decided to deploy him to Iraq, then changed their minds in the face of extensive publicity. Officials said Harry could too easily become an irresistible target for enemy forces, putting himself and his fellow soldiers at unnecessary risk.
In the December interview, one of the most extensive of his life, Harry said he considered leaving the army after being denied an Iraq deployment. The reason he didn't, he said, was "the possibility of this" mission to Afghanistan.
"I would never want to put someone else's life in danger when they have to sit next to the bullet magnet," he said. "But if I'm wanted, if I'm needed, then I will serve my country as I signed up to do."
Perhaps the most startling disclosure Thursday was not that Harry finally got his wish to see combat, but that Britain's famously feisty media agreed, en masse, to keep quiet about it.
Harry and his older brother, William, are tabloid favorites because of their youthful good looks, their status as sons of one of the world's most famous women and their appetite for late-night drinking sessions at London's most exclusive nightclubs.
The idea that Britain's diverse and highly competitive media outlets could keep a secret about anything struck many observers as remarkable -- particularly when that secret was England's favorite young hell-raising party boy.
"It makes me wonder what else is going on," said John Harmer, 30, a London office worker. "I don't think it can be the first time" that the media have agreed to keep information from the public.
Some wondered whether an agreement among leading media outlets to withhold information would damage the media's credibility. "One wonders whether viewers, readers and listeners will ever want to trust media bosses again," TV broadcaster Jon Snow wrote in his blog. "Or perhaps this was a courageous editorial decision to protect this fine young man?"
Every major news outlet in Britain signed on to the deal, which was struck in three meetings called by top military officials between September and December, according to a media source involved in the process.
At the first session, Gen. Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, and other top officials told 30 to 40 media representatives that they wanted to give Harry a chance to deploy to a war zone -- without specifying which one.
"If he was to have a future in the army, he needed to go," Dannatt said, according to the source, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for his company.
Dannatt asked whether the media would agree to a collective blackout. In return, the military would provide photos and a written description of Harry's tour after he returned home.
The media representatives told Dannatt the proposal was "absurd" but said they would consider a blackout that allowed greater access to Harry in the war zone.
Details of the arrangement were hammered out at the second and third meetings. In return for their silence, the media would get access to a pre-deployment interview. They 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.
The media agreed not to publish those materials until after Harry's tour ended in April, the source said.
According to an account of the deal posted on the Guardian newspaper's Web site, the military also agreed to bring Harry home on a Friday, which would be convenient for both daily and Sunday papers in Britain.
"I think most people thought this would last for at most a week before it leaked out," the source said. "It lasted much, much longer than anybody thought."
British media critic Roy Greenslade called the Harry story "an incredible piece of self-censorship."
"But in the circumstances, it's understandable," he said. "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."
Greenslade said editors periodically agree to withhold information if they believe it is in the public interest. He recalled a time in the early 1990s, when he was editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper, that he learned police had discovered a large cache of Irish Republican Army weapons in Wales.
He said he and other editors agreed to a police request not to reveal that information because the police were hoping that staking out the weapons would lead to the capture of key IRA figures. Greenslade said that police did capture key suspects and that the media blackout was justified.
Dannatt issued a statement Thursday praising the British media for their "highly responsible attitude" and saying he was "very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us."
"What the last two months have shown is that it is perfectly possible for Prince Harry to be employed just the same as other Army officers of his rank and experience," Dannatt said. "His conduct on operations in Afghanistan has been exemplary. He has been fully involved in operations and has run the same risks as everyone else in his battlegroup."
With the news of Harry's presence in Afghanistan out, Dannatt said he would review whether to keep him there.
Lacey said Harry was maintaining a long British royal family tradition of military service. His uncle, Prince Andrew, served in the Falklands, and his grandfather Prince Philip was a decorated World War II veteran. Harry's father, Prince Charles, served in the British navy but never saw combat.
Although William, who is in line to become king after Charles, is also a military officer, he was much less likely to be put in harm's way, Lacey said.
"There is a convention that the principal heir should be kept away from real danger," he said. "As the 'spare' rather than the heir, Harry is expected by the royal family to take the ultimate military risks."
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."