Like father, like son: Prince Edward's Australian gaffe

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The Independent Online

It's another royal blunder Down Under. Seven years after his father marked a visit to Australia by asking an aborigine if he was still "throwing spears", Prince Edward has sparked fresh controversy by saying that the death of a teenager during a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition could encourage other children to take part in the scheme.

In an interview with The Australian newspaper, the Earl of Wessex was asked a question about David Iredale, a 17-year-old who died in December 2006 after getting lost in the Australian bush while participating in the awards programme.

Unaware of the full circumstances and admitting he had not heard about the tragedy, the Prince instead chose to recount a story about how the death of a British participant during the scheme's early years had sparked great interest among teenagers.

"All the trustees were convinced that [the boy's death] was the end of it, that it would never go any further," Prince Edward recounted. "Suddenly the award, which was new... [its] reputation among young people was: 'Wow, this is serious. You could die doing this'."

The Earl of Wessex, 45, went on to explain the decision to continue with the awards in the wake of the first tragedy. "And Lord Hunt, the man who masterminded the first successful ascent of Everest and was first director of the award, said: 'No, no, no, do nothing... Just wait and see'."

He added: "And the sense of adventure, the sense of excitement, that it gave you, that sort of risk element – young people are like that still, that sense of adventure, the sense that it [death] is possible."

Of the recruitment boom that came in wake of the tragedy, he said: "Obviously we don't want that to happen. Certainly it's not our intention: we give them the skills to go out there and do it safely and constructively. It was just that psychology, about what makes young people tick."

His ill-judged comments have ignited what was intended as a low key visit to Australia to mark 50 years of the Award. Coming in the wake of a controversial coroner's inquiry earlier this year, which concluded that Mr Iredale's death had been the result of the cavalier attitude of emergency operators as well as inadequate technology used by emergency services, the comments have touched a particularly raw nerve.

The teenager died of dehydration after being without water for 18 hours. The New South Wales deputy state coroner, Carl Milovanovich, concluded that Mr Iredale's school did not administer the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme properly. Recommendations were made that the scheme review four key areas of its programme, including an update of its record books to specify that candidates must obtain pre-approval for each particular expedition. It is alleged that, as the dying teenager begged for help, an operator sarcastically asked: "You just wandered off into the middle of nowhere did you?"

The teenager's mother has chosen not to comment on Prince Edward's remarks, but criticised the International Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme as having "serious shortcomings" and not being well-regulated in Australia.

However, other commentators in Australia described his remarks as "crass" and "insensitive", pointing out that at the age of 22, Edward himself was forced to quit his Marines training course because he found it too arduous.