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Harry news blackout sparks media row

  • Story Highlights
  • Prince Harry in Afghanistan has prompted media censorship debate
  • Channel 4 Broadcaster Jon Snow praised Drudge Report for publishing the story
  • Bob Satchwell, Society of Editors: "Media damned if it does and damned if it doesn't".
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The news that Prince Harry had been serving in Afghanistan has prompted a debate about whether the media should have signed up to a deal that banned reporting of his whereabouts.

Veteran Channel 4 broadcaster, Jon Snow, was scathing about the media decision not to report news of the deployment.

Snow praised blogger Matt Drudge who published the story on his Drudge Report Web site Thursday for breaking the "British media's conspiracy of silence"

He said in his Snowmail blog: "I never thought I'd find myself saying thank God for Drudge. The infamous US blogger has broken the best kept editorial secret of recent times. Editors have been sworn to secrecy over Prince Harry being sent to fight in Afghanistan three months ago.

"Drudge has blown their cover. 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?"

Viewers reacted angrily to his comments and vowed to boycott the news programme. Sue Smith wrote in an e-mail: "Tonight's show talking about a 'conspiracy of silence' and the email from Jon ... is so far beyond the pale I will never watch Channel 4 News again. Video Watch discussion on media ethics and Prince Harry. »

"By these standards you would have been notifying Hitler of all our secrets. Shameful. Utterly utterly shameful."

Another said: "Jon Snow, in one absolutely idiotic, thoughtless stupid statement, has just lost Channel 4 News one viewer."

Editors across the UK media had known since last December that the prince was fighting the Taliban. UK and international newspapers and TV channels, including CNN, had agreed to keep Harry's Afghan role a secret so as not to endanger him unnecessarily.

But the news appeared in Australian women's magazine New Idea in January and was not followed up by other media in keeping with the agreement.

The decision by Matt Drudge to publish the story on his site Thursday paved the way for other broadcasters and media to follow suit.

Drudge made the news in January 1998 when it broke the story about then-US president Bill Clinton's dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Politicians have also waded into the row about whether the media should have kept the embargo. Controversial MP George Galloway attacked the media blackout on BBC's Question Time.

The MP, who was expelled from the Labour Party over comments he made while opposing the war in Iraq, said: "I pay for the BBC and I don't like the idea that the British media should be part of the war effort. He also said: "Prince Harry was saying on TV that he was engaging the enemy. I don't know about you, but I have no enemies in Afghanistan."

However, Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors who brokered the deal described the dilemma faced by editors.

Writing for The Press Association, he said: "Censorship, including self censorship, is of course anathema to journalists. In the lengthy discussions about the wisdom and ethics of doing this deal, many editors voiced their concerns.

"They were anxious that it might dilute their future credibility with the public and some also thought Prince Harry should not go at all because of the risk it would bring to bear on his fellow soldiers."

Mr Satchwell also argued that media blackouts are not unusual.

"We do not report kidnaps, at the request of the police, if a hostage's life might be at risk," he said.

"We often know about the movements of politicians or royalty so that coverage can be planned but do not report them until they are safe. Prince Harry's deployment to war was of a different order but the deal was blown, not by the UK media but by a foreign Web site, the Drudge Report. It is reasonable to ask about the point of a media blackout in the Internet age.

"In this case it lasted more than 10 weeks, to the surprise of many of us involved. It was not a matter of misleading readers, listeners and viewers. In fact, they would get a deeper insight into a new side of Prince Harry from the Press Association reports resulting from the unprecedented access.

"It would have made still bigger headlines and even longer TV programs had the blackout held until planned in early April.

"The media is damned if it does, and damned if it is does not."

The public seems to be overwhelmingly behind the media's decision not to publish the story.

Comments have flooded onto the CNN Web site from readers who praised the media for not reporting the story. Reader Robin Brekke, Colorado, United States said: I am very surprised and impressed at the media's ability to keep Prince Harry's deployment under wraps for 10 weeks. I do not believe the general public has the "right to know" every detail of any individual's life...good for the media in giving him a small opportunity to live a normal life. I wish it hadn't been an American web site to break the story!"

Angry Internet users have also attacked the Drudge Report as an "irresponsible and ill-advised 'news' Web site that has seen fit to put the lives of many soldiers at risk by publishing reports of Prince Harry's deployment in Afghanistan".

The Drudge Report has so far not commented.

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However Australian magazine New Idea told The Press Association: "New Idea was not issued with a press embargo and was unaware of the existence of one. "The story was published on Monday January 7. Since then New Idea has received no comment from the British Ministry of Defence. "We take these matters very seriously and would never knowingly break an embargo.

"We regret any issues the revelation of this story in America has caused today." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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