Harry goes to war: how the media blackout was won

The seven months of planning for Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan constituted the largest media blackout ever handled by the Ministry of Defence, according to its director of news.

Home safe: Harry with brother William and Prince Charles
Home safe: Harry with brother William and Prince Charles

In July last year, 40 representatives from the media were brought tog­ether for a secret meeting in Whitehall to discuss what became known as ‘the understanding'. They included editors from national newspapers and newswires, foreign med­ia, the AP, Press Association (PA), PCC and Periodical Publishers Association.

This and subsequent meetings were co-ordinated by a core team led by MoD director of news James Shelley.

‘The first meeting with editors on 4 July was well attended and there was a great deal of useful discussion,' said Shelley. But the question of ‘what was in it for the media' became the central issue.

As discussions proceeded, a key mediator was Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell.

A plan was developed to use ‘pooled media' - a small group of print and broadcast journalists who would visit Harry in Afghanistan and get the material they would need. Each media pool would consist only of PA for print and a rotation of broadcasters.

Negotiations continued about media ­access to Harry. Another ­issue was the MoD's assertion that the ­media would be informed of Harry's ­deployment just one day ­before he left.

After his deployment on 17 December, two separate media pools followed him around Helmand over the next ten weeks. When the US website The Drudge Report broke the news last week, the understanding was over. ‘They [the UK media] all wanted to be the first to break the story... It was my job to protect all the people in the understanding,' said Shelley.

‘It’s surely not the job of the Army or MoD to sort out Harry’s relationship with the media any more than it is the media’s to act as cheerleaders for the Royals or an unpopular war’
Mail on Sunday columnist Suzanne Moore

‘It’s a PR stunt, the whole thing has been put together… He was getting increasingly bad publicity from hanging around in clubs and coming out drunk. It happened immediately after that’
Publicist Max Clifford

‘News blackouts happen all the time with kidnaps and the PM’s travel plans. It would be naive of anyone to think it was a first. It just happens to be a sexier story'
Head of Sky News John Ryley

TIMELINE: How the mod handled the story
April-May 2007 Prince Harry not deployed to Iraq following threats. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Army's chief of the general staff, seeks advice from Ministry of Defence director of news James Shelley and the Army's PR assistant director Colonel Ben Bathurst on deployment to Afghanistan.

General Sir Richard GrannattJune 2007 MoD takes advice from the Defence Press and Broadcasting Committee about whether Prince Harry's deployment might be covered under a standing Defence Advisory Notice. It was found that it would not, but an additional ‘voluntary arrangement' is mooted and Dannatt invites 40 media representatives to a meeting at the MoD.

July 2007 The first meeting is held at Whitehall on 4 July. Media deliverables are negotiated.

September 2007: Despite there being no formal plan to deploy Prince Harry, further discussions show an agreement can be reached with editors. At a meeting on 10 September, ideas are developed for pooled media teams, routine briefings and contingency plans for premature announcement.

November 2007 Further discussions conclude that the media will be briefed on Harry's deployment just one day before he leaves - a ‘bone of contention' for some.

December 2007
In the week beginning 10 December, all UK media agree with the "understanding". The final decision is made that Harry will go to war. The media are informed of this at a meeting at the MoD on 12 December. Harry's predeployment interview takes place that afternoon. Harry is deployed on 17 December. The first four-man media pool of PA and BSkyB reporters go to Afghanistan on 28 December.

January 2008 Occasional reports hit the news. When some, such as CNN, call the MoD to check facts, they are brought into the ‘understanding'.

February 2008 On 15 February, the second media pool is deployed - PA and ITV - to meet Harry in the Musa Qaleh area of Helmand. On 27 February an article hits a German website. It is deemed too vague to constitute a problem. The next day, The Drudge Report reports Harry is in Afghanistan. After discussions with Shelley, the broadcasters run the story and PA distributes the pooled copy and stills.

March 2008 Harry is brought home on 1 March, four weeks early.

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