NEW YORK – News organizations are generally the worst places to keep a secret. But for months, news of British Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan was kept from the public even though many prominent journalists knew about it.
Several organizations — including The Associated Press — agreed to keep the news under wraps to protect the prince and his fellow soldiers until the informal embargo was broken Thursday by the Drudge Report Web site.
The news out, British authorities decided Friday that the man third in line to the British throne should be pulled from Afghanistan. He had been serving with an army unit in the country's southern Helmand province since mid-December, and had been expected to stay until April.
The deal with news organizations had been in the works since last summer, when Britain's Ministry of Defense approached prominent journalists. Bob Satchwell, head of the British trade group Society of Editors, was called upon to broker the deal.
"When it became quite clear that Harry was going to be sent to Afghanistan, the media didn't want to be responsible for putting him and especially soldiers around him at extra risk, which clearly they would be," Satchwell said. "It was as simple as that."
For their cooperation, the organizations got something in return. The Press Association and Sky TV prepared thorough pool reports with interviews, video and pictures of Harry and his comrades that would be available the moment news got out — access well beyond what they'd normally get.
CNN joined the agreement about a week before Harry's deployment when it was told about it by a British affiliate, said Tony Maddox, chief of CNN International. The New York Times was not briefed about Harry's whereabouts and did not agree to any embargo, a spokeswoman said.
The AP deemed it similar to situations where it does not report on troop movements or military tactics to avoid putting soldiers at risk, said John Daniszewski, managing editor for international news. When President Bush visited Baghdad, the AP also didn't report on the trip until he was safely on the ground.
"If the AP had gone out of its way to break the story that Prince Harry was over there, it would have had the effect of inserting us into the news," Daniszewski said.
Harry's story changed — his deployment was abruptly ended — when it became public knowledge.
Yet a prominent media ethicist, Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, said he's uncomfortable when news organizations promise to censor themselves at a government's request.
Harry didn't have to go to Afghanistan, he said. What if a reporter in Afghanistan discovered Harry independently? What if another soldier shot a picture of Harry on a cell phone and distributed it over the Internet? And who is to say that the Taliban or al-Qaida couldn't find Harry on their own?
"I find the logic of news organizations to be weak and self-serving," Steele said. "I don't think the decision to hold back meets any of the criteria that I would apply to those exceptional cases where a news organization backs off on a story."
Incredibly, the embargo held even though an Australian magazine reported Harry was in Afghanistan six weeks ago. New Idea, a celebrity and lifestyle publication whose cover story this week is about pregnant Australian celebrities, reported on its Web site in mid-January that Harry had joined his regiment in a covert mission and had already seen front-line action. Its source: "a friend."
New Idea's editor told Britain's Telegraph newspaper that she had no idea of any embargo.
Yet the story's existence attracted virtually no attention until The Drudge Report posted the news Thursday.
"I certainly didn't know about it," Satchwell said, "and I went to Google every day and put in `Prince Harry' and `Afghanistan."'
Matt Drudge did not immediately return telephone and e-mail messages about his scoop. Since Drudge wrote that CNN had internal debates about reporting on Harry's military role, there was some speculation that the network leaked the news to him. But Maddox said it was "absolutely not in CNN's interest to leak the story to Drudge. We did not want the embargo to be broken."
It was also unusual that Harry's public absence had received little notice. Satchwell said the news organizations' agreement didn't extend to any of Harry's other activities or "late-night socializing." But his absence from nightclubs — or the royal family's holiday celebration — wasn't really noted.
For the sharply competitive British press, the pressure to hold back on a scoop must have been enormous. But a public backlash against an organization deemed responsible for breaking the embargo may have been worse.
The Sun newspaper wrote Friday that it was proud to play its part in the news blackout, and was disappointed Harry might have to return because "foreign media blew his cover."
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that an embargo many journalists figured wouldn't hold lasted as long as it did.