The people's prince: with Harry in Afghanistan. Dog of war or PR pawn?

Tousle-haired, in fatigues, with kitbag on his back and a mate at his shoulder, Prince Harry stepped back into Britain at RAF Brize Norton yesterday for an immediate reunion with his father and brother. He may be third in line to the throne, but, in keeping with the welcome brush with normal life the Army has given him, he was 41st in line off the plane.

That is how he has always wanted it. But, as he knows by now, when it comes to the media, what he wants and what he gets are two very different things.

And so it has proved. The 23- year-old whose only previous appearance on multi-page spreads in tabloids was when he had a heavy night at London's upscale nighteries or wore a Nazi shirt to a fancy dress party, has now – in one of those transformations beloved by the media – been hailed as a "hero", a label he would certainly reject.

The coverage of his Afghan posting has been stunning in its scale: 11 pages in the Daily Mail and Daily Express, nine in The Sun and six broadsheet pages in The Daily Telegraph. Even more remarkable was its tone. This was "Hello! Goes to Helmand". Lavish picture spreads had Harry striding purposefully towards the camera, moodily in shades in the turret of his vehicle, Action Mannish with rifle aimed, pensive on camp bed, unshaven and barking orders, smilingly clubbable with comrades, and, in a photographer's effort to conjure up visions of Steve McQueen, T-shirted and helmetless astride a motorbike.

There were stories about his work, his patrols, his breakfast, his feelings, fears, and what his mother would have thought; his nickname, rugby-playing, baseball cap, wristband, flirting with a female pilot, and even his toilet arrangements. No news source, however flaky, was immune. Even gaysocialites.com, not normally noted for its war reporting, chipped in with a story that began: "The UK's hottie Prince Harry is serving on the front line in Afghanistan!"

This apart, the coverage had, as some commentators noted, a striking similarity. The reason, of course, was that the papers themselves did not have any staff on the ground, but were using copy provided by the chief reporter of the Press Association, who went out twice during Harry's tour, and then filed stories to be transmitted when the news blackout was lifted. Or broken, as the case was at 4.37pm on Thursday afternoon when US website Drudgereport, after running a teaser headline an hour before, flashed: "They're calling him 'Harry the hero'!"

The history of the news blackout needs to be told, so misunderstood, wilfully or otherwise, has it already become. Last August, editors or their representatives were invited to a meeting at the Ministry of Defence, where they were asked their reaction to Prince Harry serving in Afghanistan and to a possible news blackout to enable this to happen. While some, notably the BBC, were uneasy about how their audience might view such a "deal", it became apparent in subsequent meetings that the media were prepared to play ball in exchange for full, if embargoed, access by a "pool" reporter and photographer. Harry was duly flown into Afghanistan last December.

As far as the UK went, the blackout held (a News of the World story last May headlined "Harry Will Go to War" predated both the posting and the agreement). Then, on 7 January, an Australian women's magazine called New Idea ran a story spilling all the essential beans. No one, least of all the MoD, seemed to have noticed. But they were aware when, last Wednesday, a diary story appeared in a German newspaper, speculating, in the absence of sightings of the prince on the London nightclub circuit, that he might be at war.

The MoD and some editors decided it was not enough to warrant the blackout ending. At no stage – then, earlier, or later – was the palace press office involved. Then, a day later, came Matt Drudge. Written in haste, to judge by the four literals in it, the short item referred to discussions within CNN about the Harry story – a hint at Drudge's likely source. (Asked a series of questions by this newspaper, Mr Drudge has yet to respond.)

The effect was immediate. The MoD press office phones rang off the hook, and it was apparent that the jig was up. Within 30 minutes, the Press Association got clearance to begin unleashing its pent-up coverage and transmitted no fewer than 10,490 words in the first hour alone. Some papers, still under the impression that every reader is a member of the commemorative plate-collecting classes, could not shovel it on to pages fast enough. No fewer than 71 pages in national papers were devoted to Harry on Friday morning.

The story getting this epic coverage, as Prince Harry was first to point out in interviews, was essentially a simple, even everyday, one. A young man was going out to do the job he had been trained for and was yearning to do. Thwarted by the inherent dangers of being sent to Iraq (where he would have been far more vulnerable), he had furiously lobbied for an Afghan posting. Now he was there, doing his job well, as are all the other 7,799 British service men and women in the country.

But such realities – and the strategies and advisability of a British military presence in Afghanistan – are not the stuff of 11 pages in mass-market papers. Hence – aided by the Press Association producing personality-oriented copy and photographs (more than 200 of them by noon on Saturday) on an industrial scale – the Hello! treatment and headlines such as "Harry the Secret Hero" (Daily Express), and "Here's to You Harry the Brave" (Daily Mirror), plus, of course, the inevitable "He's being treated like any other officer" stories. True only in the case of how his comrades treated him, this was patently not so in other respects. He was, for instance, flown into "theatre" by special forces, with a royal protection team present, and had his posting ended not on orders from staff HQ but by aUS website. Nor will he, as other soldiers will, return wounded to scuffle for proper care, job or benefits. For the families of those who are, in this sense, all too like "any other soldier", the hooray tone of the coverage of Harry's war must have been bitter-sweet indeed.

It was so for the prince, as well. On his plane home, in seats a few feet away from his were two less fortunate comrades. He said yesterday: "One had lost two limbs – a left arm and a right leg – and another guy who was saved by his mate's body being in the way but took shrapnel to the neck. Both [were] out cold throughout the whole of the flight. Those are the heroes, those were guys who had been blown up by a mine that they had no idea about, serving their country, doing a normal patrol."

His father said yesterday: "I now understand what it's like for so many families with loved ones serving abroad... we don't often appreciate what the people in the armed forces are doing."

Other voices were less restrained. For the publicist Max Clifford, Harry's tour was a "very calculated public relations exercise... When he went out he was getting increasing bad publicity from hanging around in clubs and pubs and coming out drunk. It happened immediately after that. I don't think you're cynical for saying, 'hold on a minute...'". For others, the issue was the news blackout. Channel 4's Jon Snow said: "One wonder whether viewers, readers and listeners will ever want to trust the media again."

It is a difficult thesis to sustain. First, news blackouts, of varying degrees, are commonplace. Kidnaps are often not reported until they are concluded, specific bomb scares are never reported, and details, say, of royal or prime ministerial travel not reported until the journey is under way. In the case of Prince Harry, the alternative to agreeing to play ball was to break the story in advance, thus preventing Harry's deployment, or break it when he was there, so adding to the risk he was already taking. It requires a considerable egotism to place one's tuppenny scruples as a journalist ahead of the safety of British troops.

So Harry went, did his duty and came back a tabloid hero. But the admiration's not mutual. "I generally don't like England that much," he said, "and, you know, it's nice to be away from all the Press and the papers and all the general shite that they write."

And if he or anyone at the palace imagines that the festival coverage of the past few days will end his tussles with the press, they are in for a disappointment. Even now, the paparazzi who haunt the expensive dive bars of smart London are uncapping their lenses in anticipation of Harry's arrival among them. How long before this camera magnet fulfils his next role in the incessant tabloid whirl, that of the hero falling from grace? It is, just as much as Afghanistan, a great game without end.

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