By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 1, 2008
LONDON, Feb. 29 -- British military officials announced Friday that Prince Harry would be called home immediately from Afghanistan, amid widespread praise for the British news media for keeping Harry's combat assignment secret and anger at a U.S. Web site for disclosing it.
Stories about Harry, 23, who is third in line to the British throne, dominated headlines and airwaves Friday as his 10-week tour of duty in Afghanistan came to an abrupt end.
No one was more excited than the Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, which ran a dozen stories about Harry across the first nine pages of its Friday edition -- even dropping its signature topless Page 3 Girl. The paper published a full-color, pinup-style poster of Harry on patrol in Afghanistan in full combat gear.
Some bloggers and callers to talk-radio shows criticized the British media for the unprecedented deal they struck with the Defense Ministry to maintain a news blackout about Harry's presence in Afghanistan, where his unit has been fighting resurgent Taliban forces in the southern province of Helmand.
"I'm appalled by the complicity of the Guardian and other media outlets," said one posting on the newspaper's Web site. "Of course Harry's presence endangers others. That's a reason for him to stay at home, not a justification for a huge conspiracy of silence."
But far more postings praised the deal and said editors and news executives had helped protect the life of the second son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, as well as the lives of soldiers serving alongside Harry, who described himself as a "bullet magnet."
"I'm just impressed that they managed to keep it quiet for 10 weeks," said Janet Balmforth, 70, a London resident. "Good for the British press, because usually they can't keep anything quiet."
British news media tore up their deal with the military Thursday, after the U.S. Drudge Report Web site posted what it called a "world exclusive" on Harry's Afghan tour. Although references to the possibility of Harry being in Afghanistan had appeared earlier in magazines in Australia and Germany, it wasn't until blogger Matt Drudge trumpeted the story that the British news media followed.
Drudge was a central topic of conversation across Britain on Friday. The Telegraph newspaper published a profile and described him as "arguably the most powerful journalist in the world." But mostly he was vilified.
"That stupid American," said a barber in north London. "If anything happens, he'll have blood on his hands."
Drudge did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Neil Wallis, executive editor of the News of the World, who helped broker the deal with the military, accused Drudge of a "cheap hit." Wallis told reporters he wondered if Drudge "would have done the same if it were George Bush's children or Hillary Clinton's child who was risking his life in Afghanistan."
The criticism by Wallis was noteworthy because his tabloid normally reports on the royal family with unbridled gusto. While it honored the blackout, in Friday editions it ran an ad seeking photos and stories about Harry that read: "Have you served in the Army with Prince Harry? Call us in strictest confidence."
Anger over the broken embargo echoed around Australia on Friday following news reports that the first publication to disclose Harry's presence in Afghanistan was an Australian women's magazine called New Idea, which specializes in celebrity fluff.
"New Idea was not issued with a press embargo and was unaware of the existence of one," the magazine's editors said in a statement. "The story was published on Monday, January 7. Since then New Idea has received no comment from the British Ministry of Defense. We take these matters very seriously and would never knowingly break an embargo."
In Germany, a celebrity magazine called Woman in the Mirror mentioned Harry in its Feb. 27 edition. The headline read, "On a Covert Operation in an Area of Conflict?" followed by the subhead: "Prince Harry can be quite thickheaded. Now it seems he is actually serving in Iraq or in Afghanistan."
Marion Hellbach, an editor at the magazine, said the information for the story "came from a military source in England." Hellbach said the tip was that Harry was in Afghanistan, but because of the embargo, she said, the magazine added Iraq to the headline "out of caution."
"We decided here that this is important information that we should not withhold from our readers," she said. Asked if she had worried about putting Harry in danger, she said, "We feel we were very cautious with our wording."
While editors at several major news media organizations here have remained quiet about the news blackout, several published lengthy explanations Friday.
"It was an extraordinary and rare display of unity for national and regional newspaper and magazine editors and broadcasters not to report the story," said Bob Satchwell, head of the Society of Editors, a key broker in the deal with the Defense Ministry.
"Censorship, including self censorship, is of course an anathema to journalists," Satchwell said in a statement posted on the society's Web site.
He said many editors were concerned that the blackout would "dilute their future credibility with the public." In the end, he said, they agreed it would be wrong to put Harry and his soldier colleagues "at extra risk by publicising his deployment in advance."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin and researcher Jill Colvin in London contributed to this report.