Dominic Lawson: Prince Harry and the cowardice of those on the political front line

One oleaginous creep accuses him of being like the racist comic Bernard Manning

Tuesday 13 January 2009 01:00

Will no one stand up for the little people? Prince Harry has been captured on video – by himself, actually – referring to a colleague at Sandhurst Military College as "our little Paki friend, Ahmed". I have studied pictures of Ahmed Raza Khan, who is now a captain in the Pakistani Army, and he is undoubtedly a person of limited stature. Prince Harry, who is no giant, towers over Khan at their Sandhurst graduation ceremony.

Generally, short men are very sensitive about their lack of inches. It's quite understandable: there is a clear discrimination in the jobs market against tiny men, at least according to those who identify a prejudice known as "heightism". There was a time when Sandhurst would probably have rejected Ahmed Khan purely on the grounds of stature. Fortunately, those days are behind us. Yet otherwise-enlightened women still seem inclined to reject suitors on sight, purely on grounds of height. Apparently they don't want to risk having children who are "even a little bit small".

You would think Prince Harry's cruel jibe about his colleague's vertical disadvantage would have brought forth a torrent of censure and abuse upon his royal head. Yet, as I say, there has been nothing. It is particularly striking that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been silent on this issue.

On reflection I can see why the Commission has not spoken out. It must have studied the video – which The News of the World has published – and noticed that Prince Harry seemed to be speaking with affection rather than contempt, for his colleague. The Commission, in other words, seems to understand the meaning of context.

This basic level of intelligence deserts it when it deals with the second word that Harry used: Paki. One of its spokesmen said they would be "investigating" the remark: "We will be asking the Ministry of Defence to see the evidence, share their investigation with us and their plans for dealing with it." Who knows, Prince Harry might be given a dishonourable discharge, leaving the Commission with nothing further to say.

The politicians, of course, have not been short of the necessary verbiage. That oleaginous creep Keith Vaz – although perhaps I should apologise to all oleaginous creeps by associating them with the smuggest Member of the House of Commons – accuses Prince Harry of behaving like the late racist comedian, Bernard Manning.

The Tory MP Patrick Mercer, himself a former Army Officer, is quoted by The News of the World, describing Prince Harry's behaviour as "unforgiveable". Since Mr Mercer also trained at Kelham Theological College, we can only be grateful that he abandoned thoughts of a career in the Church, where his peculiar notions about forgiveness would have been a distinct disadvantage.

Hypocrisy, however, is another matter. You might recall that Mr Mercer was forced to resign as a Tory front bench spokesman after he told a newspaper that calling a black soldier "a black bastard" was simply "the way it is" in the Army, and that some "idle and useless" ethnic minority soldiers "used racism as cover for their misdemeanours".

I presume a chill of terror ran down Mr Mercer's spine when the phone call came from The News of the World, and that he was very anxious indeed to demonstrate he had no sympathy at all – absolutely none, do you understand? – with the dreadful remarks of the third in line to the throne.

It might even help him get his old job back, especially as David Cameron was on television that very day telling Andrew Marr that Prince Harry's behaviour had been "completely unacceptable". Like Mr Mercer, Cameron would have realised that to suggest that this was just a storm in a tabloid teacup would not just infuriate the editor of the country's biggest-selling newspaper, but also lay him open to the charge that he was himself racist.

The News of the World is perfectly entitled to broadcast on its website the film of Prince Harry joshing with his Sandhurst colleagues. We must assume that it would not do anything so low as to have stolen it and that instead it paid good money – perhaps even a six-figure sum – to the person who offered it for sale (presumably one of the soldiers with whom Harry shared his home video). It's true that at the time this film was actually shot – three years ago – the News of the World's Royal Correspondent Clive Goodman, was paying thousands of pounds a year for a private investigator to hack into Prince Harry's (and his elder brother's) private phone calls; but although Goodman was jailed for this offence, the Press Complaints Commission said that it was satisfied that no-one else at the paper was aware of Mr Goodman's illegal activities.

Those at the top of The News of the World are in fact puritanical men and women of great rectitude and very easily shocked by bad behaviour, especially involving inappropriate language – even in private conversation. This much is clear by the tone of the paper's account of the "Prince Harry video". His remarks, they say, "are sick" – and add that they "will not only have infuriated the Queen but could also increase tensions with Islamic groups in the UK".

Yes, we all know how easily the Queen flies off the handle; she will definitely be cross with her grandson, and grateful to The News of the World, which of course will be in no way responsible for any "increased tensions with Islamic groups" caused by its broadcasting Prince Harry's three-year old private chit-chat on the world wide web.

Just in case we should fail to realise the bile and hatred captured by the footage, The News of the World's tag-line on the story is "Watch Prince Harry's racist outburst on video". However, if you put on your pair of white gloves and press the relevant button on The News of the World website, you will immediately see there is no "outburst" at all. Prince Harry is almost whispering the words to himself, which is not surprising, since almost all his mates were lying around fast asleep. His friend Ahmed Khan does seem to be awake, but can't hear what Prince Harry is saying to himself. He knows now, but has chosen not to join in the abuse of the young Prince. Perhaps that's because they are still friends.

I spoke to a young British army officer yesterday about the incident; he said that, yes, Pakistani cadets were frequently called "Pakis", Irish ones were called "Micks" and black cadets were often called "Chalky". He added that it was perfectly obvious when someone was being racist, that this was indeed unacceptable, but that it was very easy to distinguish between such behaviour and banter between friends. It seems however, that the press and politicians lack this form of emotional intelligence altogether – or, which is worse, pretend that they do, out of sheer cowardice.

There is one thing that worries me about moral standards among young men in theBritish Army, however: that it could contain the sort of person who would betray a colleague for the sake of a cheque from the News of the World.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments