Can You Keep a Secret?





When the world learned Prince Harry was secretly serving in Afghanistan, perhaps the greatest shock was  the number of people who worked together to keep the secret. The media had been in on it from the start – they’d kept it under wraps for more than 10 weeks.

All major media outlets in Britain, including AP and CNN from the United States, came together in agreement with the British Ministry of Defense. Bob Satchwell, executive director of the British Society of Editors, says they kept the Prince’s deployment secret in exchange for exclusive print and broadcast material to be shared among news agencies.

Satchwell defends the British media’s decision because it was voluntary and informal, but most importantly because it was made for the safety of the soldiers.

“No one would ever want to be responsible in any way or partly responsible for increasing the risk to the lives of Prince Harry and the soldiers serving with him,” Satchwell says.

And so, no member of the media increased that risk. For more than 10 weeks the public received no word of the Prince’s deployment except when the German tabloid Bild and the Australian magazine New Idea broke the story. Then, in the U.S., the infamous Matt Drudge brought the story into the international spotlight by publishing it on his blog, the Drudge Report.

Once the initial fanfare died down, the issue of a widespread media blackout came to light and the decision was questioned.
Did it abuse the public’s trust, or was it the right move? As time went on, support grew for both sides. Jon Snow, a UK journalist for Channel 4 asked in his blog: “One wonders whether viewers, readers and listeners will ever want to trust media bosses again. Or perhaps this was a courageous editorial decision to protect this fine young man?”

Many were asking these questions on blogs and in papers and the dreaded C-word began to circulate. Censorship.
Satchwell denies the claim. “The idea that this was some kind of censorship is absolute nonsense.”

And furthermore, he says he received an unprecedented positive response from the British public. This was “rather unusual because we don’t get many messages from the public praising the media.”

But aside from the British public’s commendation, across the globe some saw the embargo as illogical.

Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter scholar for journalism values, warned about the implications of such a deal in his article: Blackout more like a copout.

“By agreeing to the secrecy, the media blackout, they were given greater access,” Steele says over the phone. “That quid pro quo stinks.”

For Steele, the argument that the ban protected the Prince is weak. He counters that Harry was not indispensable in the military and enemies could have found him with or without western media coverage.

“I don’t accept the premise that the media are endangering Harry and his cohorts over there,” he says. “I think it was a misguided sense of patriotism among the British media. It was a misguided reverence for the royalty.”

Satchwell and Steele both agree there are accepted circumstances, such as kidnappings, in which the media omit information. The police may ask them not to report lest a life be in danger. And this logic is understood among journalists.

“If there’s a life immediately on the line, profound immediate danger is what I would call it,” Steele says. “That may be a justifiable reason for authorities to request and news organizations to agree. But that’s different and this one is not what I would call the profound imminence.”

Parliamentary reporters in Canada occasionally enter confidentiality agreements when it comes to the whereabouts of the Prime Minister during press tours in dangerous areas.

Richard Brennan, president of the Canadian parliamentary press gallery, says while protecting the Prime Minister’s location is acceptable, large-scale media blackouts compromise journalists.

“The Prince Harry thing I have a huge problem with,” Brennan says. “I have no idea why anyone would agree to that.
“He’s not unlike any other soldier, and why should he receive special treatment?”

Brennan doesn’t think a similar occurrence could happen in Canada. He says one reason British media may have agreed to a blackout is how highly the royal family is viewed there, but an equivalent doesn’t exist in Canada.

“I just can’t imagine that ever happening here.”

When it comes to collusion between the government and media, Brennan wastes no time explaining his opinion.

“You’re compromised,” he says. “We’re supposed to be there to report the news. We aren’t supposed to be there as an arm of the government, or in this case the royal family.”

Whether the embargo was right or wrong, after the news broke Jon Williams of the BBC tried to assure the world he’s got nothing left to hide.

The world news editor wrote in his blog: “We don’t do this stuff lightly - there are no other voluntary agreements in place at the moment, there’s nothing else we’re not telling you.”

Unless it’s a secret.