THE Scotsman newspaper yesterday revealed that it opposed the media blackout of Prince Harry in Afghanistan as “a rotten idea” and had claimed that it wouldn’t work.
In his weekly Readers’ Ombudsman column, the paper’s deputy editor, Ian Stewart, said: “It turned out we were right – and they were lucky.”
He reiterated the point on BBC Scotland’s Newsnight Scotland last night.
“When the Ministry of Defence first contacted The Scotsman about a media blackout of Prince Harry in Afghanistan, we said it was a rotten idea; that it wouldn’t work,” began Stewart. “It turned out we were right – and they were lucky. Here’s what our thinking was.
“Whenever newspapers are asked to withhold information, the instinctive response is: ‘No’. We are already bound by legal and self-imposed ethical restrictions and to step even further out of them requires very compelling reasons.
“We have a contract with our readers, and deliberately withholding information can seriously undermine that. But we want to be responsible and we understand that sometimes the greater good is served by delaying publication of certain information.
“When the Ministry of Defence first ‘consulted’ over its idea of a media blackout for Prince Harry to serve a tour of active duty in Afghanistan, it offered a deal whereby the various elements of the media would agree not to reveal he was there until he returned, but during the tour good access would be given to nominated journalists and then everything would be given out to all on his return. The MoD said it feared that if Prince Harry was known to be serving, he and the troops around him would be at greater risk of attack.
“We responded by saying it was naive to believe that the fact the prince was serving would not become known on the ground, and then would not surface on foreign media websites. The risk was bound to occur and any arranged media blackout here would not stop that. We said the risk assessment the MoD had to make on whether to send Harry should be done in the full knowledge that news of his presence would not keep.
“Several weeks later, the MoD informed us that, following the consultation, the ministry had decided to go ahead with the blackout idea and would we sign up to it? We had to concur with the widely accepted view that knowledge of Prince Harry’s presence would increase the risk to him and to the people around him. And that risk was very real and could easily mean death. So, regardless of what we believed would happen elsewhere, the decision before us was clear. Other newspapers had obviously agreed. If we did not agree would the idea be scrapped? Unlikely. It seemed clear the MoD was pressing ahead.
“Reluctantly, we said that, if the MoD went ahead and sent Prince Harry to Afghanistan, we would not be the paper to break any blackout and therefore put lives at increased risk.
“In the event, we were proved right. It would appear his presence was known in the country well before it broke on the Drudge Report website; the Australian magazine, New Idea, reported it on 15 January. It would appear that for weeks the protection of the third in line to the throne was based on the assumption that terrorists don’t read glossy Australian magazines. The real question here is why the military went through these hoops and ultimately took these risks just to indulge the desires of one individual. It does not seem a very mature judgment to me.”