The prince and 'national unity'

Harry drops bombs to 'save lives' while the media snuggles up to the state, reports James Turley

Harry Windsor’s army saga began close to a year ago. The royal scion, popularly perceived to be a little on the dim side and something of a ruffian compared to his more ‘illustrious’ brother William, had completed his training at Sandhurst as a tank commander.

In interviews he declared his strong desire to go to Iraq with his regiment, the Blues and Royals. He was to lead a unit of 12 soldiers, commanding four ‘armoured reconnaissance vehicles’, and by all accounts was positively chomping at the bit. He said he had no desire to “sit on his arse” while his comrades faced bullets and bombs in the Gulf.

All of which contributed to the storm of publicity which broke when it emerged that army head general Sir Richard Dannatt had pulled the plug on his deployment. He blamed the media: “I have to add that a contributing factor to this increase in threat to prince Harry has been the widespread knowledge and discussion of his deployment. It is a fact that this close scrutiny has exacerbated the situation and this is something that I wish to avoid in future.”

Indeed, it was clearly the case that insurgents in Iraq knew all about it, and were as enthusiastic to get their hands on Harry as he was to get his on them. The Guardian quoted a commander of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army as saying: “One of our aims is to capture Harry; we have people inside the British bases to inform us on when he will arrive” (May 17 2007).

Now, over nine months of total media silence later, it is revealed that Harry had been shipped out and was serving - as “second lieutenant Harry Wales” - in Afghanistan. The story did not break in the UK media, but was carried to little fanfare in an Austrian magazine in early January, and was picked up by Matt Drudge of the rightwing blog Drudge Report at the end of February. At that point, the army decided that the cover was blown and made an official announcement; and only then did the media go with the story.

Why? Well, it emerged that previously the various outlets had all had a friendly chat with Dannatt and the government and agreed not to publish any reports of the prince’s whereabouts. This agreement, alas, did not extend to Austria - and certainly not to every conservative crank on the internet - and Dannatt was unable to contain his disgruntlement with the “foreign websites” which had “decided to run this story without consulting us” (The Guardian February 28).

Many bourgeois commentators have been full of scorn at the whole affair. Simon Jenkins, one of The Guardian’s resident Tories and often a perceptive writer, noted that the chance of keeping the deployment secret was “close to zero”, and that the failure to take the existence of the internet and other international media into account was a colossal blunder (February 29). The same paper’s Marina Hyde suggested that the correct course for her employer to take would have been to boycott the ban, thus making the whole ridiculous plan unworkable (March 1). The Times, meanwhile, carried a piece by ex-Revolutionary Communist Party alumnus Mick Hume, suggesting that the farrago misses the fact that the whole Afghanistan war is bogged down and ultimately pointless (March 4).

Hume, whatever his operative politics these days, is right. Regardless of the issue of ‘competence’, never far from the mind of the ruling class, it is clear that these events represent in unusually concentrated form a number of political questions. The war in Afghanistan is the main one, of course, and the one most ignored by the mainstream media. A look at the Army Rumour Service (Arrse) forums reveals a number of posts in agreement with the Times article.

The media and state

For Marxists, despite Hume’s protestations, another of these questions is that of the relationship between the mainstream media and the state. Hume and Jenkins both marvel at how long it took for the story to break, ‘agreement’ or no. The fact that it did speaks volumes about that relationship.

One of the cornerstones of the political philosophy underpinning ‘bourgeois democracy’ is the free press. This, like similar freedoms, is a substantially negative concept - you should be free to print what you want without the interference of the state. Enthusiasm for this runs deep. In the priorities of anti-communist propaganda of the cold war era, state monopoly of the press and media was second only to direct physical repression.

This freedom, as far as it goes, has very rarely existed in a pure state, if at all. It is certainly the case that, in Britain, the various Official Secrets Acts have made certain news reports illegal; generally, of course, those news reports that would least favourably dispose people towards the state. Since 1989, it has been impossible to defend against prosecutions under the OSA by invoking the ‘public interest’.

This kind of legal repression is, from the communist perspective, obscene. However, it constitutes only a tiny faction of the powers available to censor the media in this country. Far more significant - and infamous - is the DA notice (formerly D notice), whereby the state ‘requests’ that a given outlet cancel a story. From the coverage generally given to the notices, you would be given to believe that they are compulsory, but this is not the case.

It is obviously also not the case with the Harry ‘agreement’. What is remarkable about this case in particular is that it distils the depth of the connections between the state and (as opposed to particular companies and outlets) the media as such. In this case, there was no distinction between The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail or the BBC. Even those papers given to criticism of the government (from the right or liberal-left) were pathetically eager to cooperate.

There have been numerous theoretical conceptions of this relationship. The radical-liberal milieu has variously either (à la John Pilger) seen journalism as essentially a pliant servant of the state or (in the case of the Guardianista mainstream) conversely portrayed governments as pawns of Rupert Murdoch and other media barons. Louis Althusser, in his account of ideology, numbers the media among the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ - thus conceiving of them as relatively autonomous but integral parts of the state. That kind of relationship seems to be the case; while the bourgeois media is certainly not disinclined ever to go after its own national state, it is clear that this combat takes place within a similar general framework to the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics - that is, bourgeois power relations. A case such as Harry’s deployment simply highlights the solidarity underlying the frothing editorials and Downing Street press briefings.

Monarchy and ‘people’

One thing the media did see fit to report was the exact nature of the duties of “second lieutenant Wales”. After it became plainly impossible for Harry to be a frontline soldier leading a tank group, he retrained as a ‘forward air controller’. This involved watching footage of enemy movements on viewing screens (which, The Guardian reports, are nicknamed ‘Kill TV’ - February 28) and reporting their positions to fighter planes, which then drop 500lb bombs where indicated. Apparently this is done to “save lives”, according to our heroic prince.

Also widely reported (and fawningly admired) is Harry’s desire to be ‘normal’, just one of the lads, and his love of the barrack-room camaraderie - and last year’s comment about not “sitting on his arse” was as laser-targeted at populist monarchophiles as a 500lb bomb is at ‘Terry Taliban’.

Unfortunately for Harry, these two things do not add up. Because, despite all his professed desires to the contrary, he has indeed ended up sitting on his arse while his comrades risk their lives. Rather than wiping out the difference between regular soldiers and himself, inheritor of a host of military titles by default, his deployment rubs in that he is a ‘special package’.

‘Bullet magnet’, as he has been nicknamed, is the polite way of putting it - polite, because it ignores the fact that he is not there at all for the same reason as the other troops. The reason he was sent at all is simply that he represents a PR exercise on the part of the British state. The most useful ideological support for war efforts, after all, has long been the idea of national unity - and there is no greater example of national unity than the notion of dirt-poor economic conscripts fighting alongside a prince.

However, although the PR coup has been pulled off as well as could be expected, the national unity angle is nevertheless frustratingly out of reach for the establishment. Class relations, in this case as in all others, are re-inscribed fairly swiftly even in an ostensibly ‘classless’ organisation like the military. Scrape away the gloss of prince Harry doing his bit, and the true nature of the army - the entrenched officer corps and cannon fodder grunts - is laid embarrassingly bare.