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March 03, 2008

Richard D. North asks, Harry: Wastrel, warrior or propaganda tool?

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - author of Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free - explains why he has got even more than usually annoyed with Channel 4 News over their treatment of the Harry story.

I am quite often quite cross with Channel 4 News. What right-winger isn't? All the same, the news-hour's approach to the Harry story fired me up much more than usual. Its patter seemed to imply that the media had been suckered into self-censorship whose result has been the creation of a pseudo-hero for Establishment propaganda purposes.

In short, I agree with much of what Bryan Appleyard wrote in the Sunday Times. But I think we can usefully unpick things a bit more. It is quite important to note, by the way, that Channel 4 News' tone was snippy and aggrieved. Even if they had a serious point to make, this wasn't a clever way of going about it.

It may be a while before we really understand the dynamic of this news story, if we ever do. For a start, we would need to know the degree to which the Ministry of Defence, or the Army, or Buckingham Palace, or Clarence House, instigated and played the deployment of the prince for their own PR purposes. We need the answer to that question if we want to decide whether it may have been right for Jon Snow to get so aerated about the betrayal of trust he assumes lies behind the news-blackout agreed-to by the media and the Army.

If the prime instigators of this were royalist or militarist propagandists, then arguably the media have been suckered, and should be ashamed of themselves.

It is perhaps inevitable that a royal officer will be used as a recruiting sergeant. It is much less clear and defensible that he should be used to endorse an unpopular war. It is certainly likely that after recent PR disasters with kidnapped sailors and Marines, and nasty pranks and worse, the military may well have been hungry for upbeat stories.

But I don't imagine that this hunger much influenced events. For all sorts of reasons there is a long-standing tradition that the royal family has strong military links and in times of war it is quite important that middle-rank royals should be allowed to fight in the front line. In modern times, the Duke of Edinburgh did that, and so did Prince Andrew. There is little doubt that Princess Anne would have been brilliant in this role, given the chance. It wasn't surprising that Harry went into the Army and it wasn't surprising that he wanted to do the work he trained for. Many people would have thought it perverse if he hadn't been allowed to risk his life.

It also seems inevitable that, when Harry served at the front, some sort of embargo would have had to be used. It is also extremely likely that the quid pro quo would be juicy access and images for later use.

This turns the story though 360 degrees. It is not the palace or the military who have promoted Harry as a hero - it is the media. I think it is very likely that Harry would very much have liked anonymity and normality, at least for a few years. Anyway, I am not at all sure that it is wrong of the military and palace to "use" Harry's deployment as best they may. Both are in the public perception business, big-time.

What matters is the way it's done. Harry seems a refreshingly normal young man. And it was Prince Charles who gave a touching and sterling interview to the media on his son's service and safe if untimely return, and that's worth saying because it goes to the way that the Royals are gaining traction, not losing it, during these frenetic times. Spin is not altogether inconsistent with grit.

I am inclined to guess that Channel 4 News' ire last Thursday and Friday was roused not least because they have been bounced into opining on all this rather quicker, and in less agreeable circumstances, than they wanted. I can imagine they may have enjoyed rubbishing the media's embargo and its handling of the prince's exploits, once he was back, as planned. Their position might even have seemed a little more attractive if the prince's deployment and its use by The Establishment and the media had unfolded as planned.

I doubt their position would have seemed a lot more attractive, however. There are lots of people who hate Blair's wars, and there are lots who are ambivalent about them. But there are many amongst even those sceptics, and many more who are less sceptical, who are proud of the Army and happy that the royals serve in it. Indeed, royal military service is very probably going to cement the royals in the public affection.

This may well infuriate the Channel 4 News mindset. I get special joy from observing that the snippiness of the Channel 4 coverage will serve to remind most Britons, including most Muslims by the way, that they see little wrong with a Britain that has a proud military and a royal family connected with it. What's more, I suspect that this incident will remind the majority of Britons that there is a good deal to be said for a media that behaves responsibly when either the military or the royals are on the line.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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