An American website, the Drudge Report, broke a news blackout yesterday by revealing that Prince Harry has been serving in Afghanistan for more than two months.
To the fury of the Ministry of Defence and condemnation from the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the website announced a "world exclusive" and proclaimed: "They're calling him 'Harry the Hero!".
The article brought to an end an agreement with the media that the Prince's deployment to Helmand be kept quiet in the interests of his safety and that of the soldiers with him.
The decision to send Prince Harry, 23, to Afghanistan under a cloak of secrecy came after the furore that followed the revelation of his proposed deployment to Iraq. Much to the Prince's frustration, General Dannatt announced in May last year that it would be too risky, fearing the Prince and his comrades in the Household Cavalry would become top priority targets for insurgents.
Immediately, officers decided the only way the third-in-line to the throne could continue to do his duty without creating an additional security risk was to send him secretly, calling on the media to co-operate in a news blackout.
By July, editors of key newspapers and broadcasting organisations were sounded out to see if such assistance would be forthcoming. Without dissent, all agreed that it was the only sensible and safe solution.
In December, days before Cornet Wales – as the Prince is known in The Blues and Royals – deployed to Helmand, editors met MoD officials and signed an understanding setting out the terms of the news blackout. While not a legally binding document, it was a statement of faith from the British press.
It is thought the source for the Drudge Report article was a story printed last month in an Australian women's magazine, New Idea. The Drudge Report is most famous for breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal after Newsweek decided not to publish the story.
At 3.30pm yesterday the MoD received a call, confirming fears that a foreign news organisation would break the silence. A decision was taken to make a formal statement confirming the Prince had been in Afghanistan.
"I am very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us. This is in stark contrast to the highly responsible attitude that the whole of the UK print and broadcast media, along with a small number of overseas outlets, who have entered into an understanding with us over the coverage of Prince Harry on operations," General Dannatt said.
"The editors took the commendable attitude to restrain their coverage. I would like to thank them for that."
Like his brother, Prince Harry had trained to be a troop leader of a group of four to six Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicles. He considered leaving the Army when told it was too dangerous for him to go to Iraq but accepted an offer to retrain as a battlefield air controller.
The Queen broke the news to her grandson that he was being sent to Afghanistan, a decision she strongly supported. Except for the media, only close family and friends and as few as 15 MoD officials were told in advance.
Deployed on 14 December, he spent time at the Forward Operating Bases Dwyer and Delhi in a Taliban-infiltrated area to the far south of the province, working with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles. Although the Prince's work involved regular radio contact with pilots from several countries, they knew him only by his call sign.
He has since left Garmsir to work in another part of Helmand province, details of which cannot be reported for security reasons.
In interviews, the Prince said he was not missing the luxuries of home and was enjoying "just mucking in as one of the lads", adding: "It's very nice to be a normal person for once, I think this is about as normal as I'm ever going to get."
Footage courtesy of PA
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