‘Harry’s War: It’s just a blatant PR stunt’ by Peter Wilby.
The Guardian Online. March 3, 2008.
Media blackout requests have long caused great ethical dilemmas for editors and journalists. In an age when we’re able to rapidly disseminate information worldwide, debate about the value and implications of those requests has become even more complicated.
In 2007, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) negotiated a media blackout that would allow Prince Harry to serve in Afghanistan in secret. The MoD argued that coverage of his combat mission would make the Prince and his unit specific targets for the Taliban. After extensive debate, British editors agreed to the request in exchange for extensive interviews, photographs and footage when the Prince returned.
In this 2008 article for the Guardian Online, former newspaper editor, Peter Wilby, argues Britain’s media signed up to an extraordinarily long and voluntary agreement and did so because it would benefit ‘their news operations, sales and brand images’ rather than out of a sense of responsibility. He says the resulting coverage was largely positive and amounted to a brilliant PR stunt by the MoD for a war of ‘dubious legitimacy and declining public popularity.’ By their actions, Wilby says, Britain’s editors dealt their profession a blow.
Prince Harry’s cover was actually blown by two overseas outlets not part of the voluntary deal: Australia’s New Idea and, later, the US-based Drudge Report. This raises questions about the value of a blackout involving an international figure that would have been impossible to apply to all foreign media.
Blackouts equal censorship, and Wilby’s article provides food for thought as to why they require careful ethical consideration.