07 March 2008

Prince Harry and Media Secrecy Agreements

The VOA News Blog normally answers questions or addresses journalistic issues that are drawn to our attention by readers. This time, we have a question for you about a recent story:

Did British news organizations do the right thing in agreeing to keep secret the fact that Britain’s Prince Harry was deployed with troops in combat in Afghanistan?

Not surprisingly, the news organizations involved have defended their decision, citing safety concerns for troops deployed with the Prince as well as similar agreements in the past in cases involving national security issues as well as kidnappings.

But there have been opposing points of view from some media critics in recent days.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, for example, has noted that while news media have kept secrets where national security has been concerned, the Prince Harry secret was different: “For one thing, news organizations generally decide individually not to publish or broadcast; they don't get together and make a joint decision. The British media's decision to keep silent seems to be popular, but I can't see how the public's interest is best served by editors getting together and deciding what the people don't need to know.”

CJR.org, the media criticism web site of the Columbia Journalism Review (at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism), reported the agreement came at a time when public trust in the news media was not particularly high. It suggests the secrecy agreement was motivated by self-interest. “While many in the British public may accept their press outlets’ decision to agree to the embargo, news of the blackout erodes that trust—slightly, perhaps, but still significantly. The media may love a good redemption story, but it’s a problem when they become not only the narrators, but also the facilitators, of that redemption. And it’s an even bigger problem if the salvation they’re seeking is, finally, their own.”

Finally, media critic Jon Friedman of Dow Jones Marketwatch argues the blackout agreement set a bad precedent: “It's never a good idea for the media to play ball with the rich, famous and powerful, regardless of whether they're royal family members, government officials, corporate executives or celebrities. The practice establishes a potentially dangerous precedent. How can the public believe what we say and write if they suspect we're willing to suppress news?”

So, what do you think? Comment here or drop us an email: VOANewsBlog@voanews.com

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