Stephen Glover On The Press

Discretion was certainly the better part of valour in this unique case
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The Independent Online

A surprising number of people, not all of them diehard republicans, think the media were wrong not to report Prince Harry's front-line role in Afghanistan. They point out that there was no issue of national security at stake. So that the 23 -ear-old Prince could fight in Afghanistan without being a specific target, the media suppressed information as to his whereabouts, getting lots of pictures in return. Some people are asking what else is being kept quiet.

Even the most fervent monarchist journalist may have a few qualms. I certainly do. Nonetheless, the suppression seems to me justifiable. After Prince Harry was prevented from fighting in Iraq last year, it was clear that he could only avoid unacceptable risks in Afghanistan if his presence there was not publicised. The media should feel ashamed if they had sat on information to his discredit. As it is, they delayed reporting something that was to his credit, inasmuch as he was undeniably being brave. It is difficult to see how anyone, apart from the Taliban, has suffered.

What does amaze me, though, is that the secret was kept for so long, given that journalists were involved. By the time the news was revealed last Thursday by the US-based Drudge Report, thousands of people in this country must have known. Think of all the journalists who told their spouses or children, some of whom will have passed on the information to their friends. And yet no story appeared on a UK-based blog, and newspapers from the Daily Star to the Financial Times remained schtumm. Perhaps this indicates that we remain a community after all, able to keep a secret which we think important.

In the end, though, an American blog blew the story, though it had surfaced briefly in Australia last month. This suggests to me that while it was perfectly legitimate for the British media to remain quiet, self-censorship of this sort will probably not be practicable in the future. It may, indeed, be possible to get British news organisations to participate in a conspiracy of silence, but it is hard to imagine an agreement that would ensure foreign media outlets do not break ranks. I am only surprised it took so long. This was a rather old-fashioned deal between the media and the authorities which did not take account of the multi-national, hard-to-police character of the internet.

Some secrets will continue to be kept. For example, whenever President George W Bush travels to Iraq or Afghanistan, American media outlets do not mention his journey until he arrives, even though he is accompanied by dozens of reporters. But the "time-frame" in such cases is narrow, and the number of people in the know limited. (Incidentally, I don't suppose the fearless Drudge Report publishes information about the movements of an American President.) It is a different matter to safeguard an important secret for months unless a government can invoke national security and obtain the cooperation of other governments in controlling media outlets. Even then it may be difficult.

That is why those people who are belly-aching about media suppression are probably wasting their breath. There won't be many more agreements of this sort between the media and the authorities for the simple reason that they can't be kept.

The best paper in the world no more

Who would have thought that the venerable New York Times would run a story about which the News of the World would have had second thoughts?

As has been widely reported, 11 days ago the most famous and self-important newspaper in the world carried a story implying that Senator John McCain may have had an extra marital affair with a lobbyist in 1999. The paper justified its story by suggesting that the man who seems certain to be the Republican candidate in November's presidential elections may have allowed his closeness to Vicki Iseman to influence his decisions on the Senate commerce committee which he chaired.

In fact, it did not produce any evidence that he had had an affair, even though several of its allegedly top reporters had been working on the story for months. The New York Times' own ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, has subsequently criticised the piece. He writes that "the article offered no proof that McCain and Iseman had an affair [and was] notable for what it did not say." He chided the paper for relying on the suspicions of former aides that there had been a fling.

Isn't this incredible? If the News of the World alleged that a British political leader had had an extra marital affair, based purely on the suspicions of former advisers, it would be pilloried. Actually, it would not dare. But the morally impregnable, self-satisfied New York Times, with an editorial staff of 1,300 (soon to be 1,200 after cutbacks), does so, and its executive editor, Bill Keller, though widely criticised, is still sitting smugly in his editorial chair.

Whenever American right-wingers tell me that The New York Times is biased against the right, I shrug my shoulders and say that it is still the most reliable newspaper in the world. No longer.

Dave Spart is definitely not dead

A letter appeared in last week's Guardian that proved Dave Spart is not dead. Signed by leftist luminaries, and evidently got up by pressure group Compass, it held out the prospect of Armageddon if Boris Johnson is elected Mayor of London over Ken Livingstone.

Particularly interesting was its attack on the London Evening Standard. Those who want the full flavour should read the version in Comment is Free on the Guardian website, rather than the one in the newspaper which, for reasons of space or circumspection, contained a briefer attack on the Standard.

That newspaper has made several serious allegations against Livingstone, but the lengthy letter did not try to rebut them, and launched instead into a Spartist rant: "Day-in, day-out battering ram . . . disfigurement of the fourth estate . . . blatant propaganda machine for the rich and powerful etc etc."

Can't Ken's friends do better than that?