Joyce McMillan : Silence over Harry in Afghanistan puts us on slippery slope

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IT'S AN OLD rhyme, but a clever one. Humbert Wolfe's famous 1920s epigram about the workings of power in British journalism. "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist," he wrote. "But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to."

And this week, the whole nation has had a chance to witness a striking demonstration of exactly what Wolfe meant. It's not that there was the smallest hint of corruption about the universal decision of the British media, back in December, to comply with an official request that Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan be kept secret, in order, so far as possible, to protect his life and the lives of those serving alongside him – in many ways, it was a compassionate and sensible decision.

But all the same, the British media were somehow schmoozed, wooed and lured – with promises of unrivalled access once the deployment was over – into breaking the habit of a lifetime, and not a telling a juicy story about which they were in the know. And when the silence was finally broken on Thursday – by an American news website, Drudge Report – some sections of the industry could hardly contain their excitement at being able to reveal what had been going on, and what good chaps they had been for the last ten weeks. News programmes were specially extended, the Daily Mail covered the story across no fewer than ten pages, and the excitement in the London media village was intense, so intense, in fact, that few seemed to notice the uneasy response from many members of the public.

For the truth is that the Prince Harry affair raises some pretty sharp questions about media priorities, questions which our industry often brushes off, or fails fully to take on board. For if the media are going to go in for ten-week silences on subjects of great interest to the public, then it's worth asking whether there might not be many other subjects on which a period of media restraint would be even more beneficial.

It is now clearly demonstrated, for example, that excessive, sensational and disproportionate coverage of violent crime is driving the nation out of its wits on the subject, and encouraging poor policy-making and antisocial attitudes to the point where some of the editors involved ought to be served with Asbos themselves. Yet, is there the smallest chance of a ten-week moratorium in that area? Somehow, I doubt it.

The same need for a period of silence also arguably applies to the subject of immigration: for the truth is that if the media did not bang on so extensively about the numbers of new migrants arriving in Britain, most people living in Scotland – and many in England, outside the urban south-east – would barely be aware of it, and therefore would not work themselves into the kind of xenophobic lather that just occasionally costs innocent lives.

And when it comes to the recent financial meltdown – well, everyone knows that the entire banking industry is based on confidence. Which means that the British taxpayer might well have been spared at least some of the cost of the colossal 60 billion Northern Rock rescue package, if only the media had not been so quick to publicise images of distraught customers queuing to get their cash out, and then to predict the imminent collapse of whole sections of the property market.

Now of course, I'm not seriously arguing that the media could or should be silent on any of these subjects.

But I am seeking to demonstrate that once we start suppressing news stories for any reason, however apparently sensible or compassionate, we stand at the top of a very slippery slope, and that a media industry which, in recent years, has rarely hesitated to wreck the lives of hapless ordinary people or vulnerable celebrities whose stories interest the public, can hardly expect to win many brownie points for keeping quiet in the case of a young prince desperate to prove his manhood on active service.

We might also wonder why, in the 21st century, we are still stuck with a model of monarchy so archaic that a young prince feels his life is meaningless if he cannot "fight and kill as he was trained to do", in the words of the Tory MP Patrick Mercer.

And of course, we might finally ask once again those questions about news priorities that so desperately need to be exposed and debated in any healthy democracy. Some parents who have lost sons and daughters in Afghanistan will be glad, of course, to see the whole subject receiving so much attention.

But others will wonder why, at the beginning of the 21st century, it still takes a prince to push this conflict, and the suffering caused by it, into a decisive top place on the news agenda.

In our time, we should not only know the truth about the equal value of each human life, but feel it, in our hearts.

Yet if we do have that feeling, it seems the average British newsroom has still to catch up with us. And if we don't – well then, as usual, we find ourselves living with the media industry we deserve, and with the unlovely image of our own attitudes that it reflects back to us.

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