Harry’s old game

Leaving aside the implications of what Harry Wales actually said on his return from Afghanistan, the publicity his comments have generated have, once again, pointed to aspects of military work that are often hidden in the carefully managed Newspeak about life in the armed forces.

Everyone remembers the Las Vegas pictures earlier in the summer and his sporting of a Nazi armband when he was in his teens. This is an extract from Military MIgrants recalling what happened when the young ‘warrior-prince‘ was heard calling his fellow officer a ‘Paki’.

From chapter 5, Keeping the Faith.

A royal scandal           

In January 2009 the News of the World published a story based on a leaked video diary made by Prince Harry while training at Sandhurst. The paper revealed that Harry had referred to his fellow officer cadet, Ahmed Raza Khan, as ‘our little Paki friend, Ahmed’ and told a friend wearing a camouflaged hood that he looked like a ‘raghead.’

When celebrities or public figures are caught being racist or anti-semitic on camera their employers are normally obliged to act swiftly to distance themselves or risk damage to their brand by association. Whether the culprit works for the BBC, a fashion house or even the government, he or she faces public shaming in the national media in a show of practised outrage that has its own momentum. Since he was a member of the royal family, the choice of words used by the prince might be thought to reflect negatively on the institution of the monarchy itself.

In addition, Harry was not merely a soldier when he made the video, he was also in the process of training to become an officer. When the story broke he was working as a junior manager charged with responsibility to set an example. As well as his family, he had managed to drag his employer into the spotlight of negative publicity.

The fact that it was a uniformed prince caught uttering such casually racist terms meant that the monarchy, the government and the armed forces were obliged to take a stand on the limits of acceptable speech. In other words, the British military ethos stood in danger of being compromised if there was no official criticism of the prince’s remarks. In the event, Harry’s behaviour was more readily dismissed by his family as a youthful indiscretion as the incident had occurred three years earlier.

The quick apology issued by St James’ Palace also sought to condone the use of the term, ‘Paki’, stressing that it was a ‘nickname about a very popular member of the platoon’, and ‘used without malice’.

By the time the video diary was leaked, Prince Harry, who had once caused a scandal by attending a fancy dress party in Nazi uniform, was already on the road to rehabilitation after his stint in Helmand Province had been revealed to the world’s attendant media. At least, this was the basis on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown was ready to downplay the incident. ‘I think the British people are good enough to give someone who has actually been a role model for young people … the benefit of the doubt,’ he said.

Cabinet minister John Denham gave him a qualified knuckle rap, saying: ‘This sort of language can be seen as offensive, is offensive, is gradually going out of use in our society, and he’s apologised for it.’ The opposition also took the opportunity to criticise Harry’s use of language. From the sidelines, Tory leader David Cameron it was ‘completely unacceptable’ and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the comment had caused ‘considerable offence.’

The Daily Mail was less ready to be forgiving, saying that Harry’s apology was insufficient for his ‘incredible crassness’ especially since Khan, an award-winning cadet at Sandhurst, by then was serving in the Pakistan Army where he had a ‘captain’s role in the war on terror’. Seen in this context, Harry’s use of the racist terms ‘Paki’ and ‘raghead’ had more severe implications than a casual example of army banter.

It represented an example of behaviour that could, in theory, lead to far more serious breach of the law if it was not publicly condemned. Pakistan was one of the UK’s strategic allies in the global counter-insurgency and this was a potential blow for the cause of defence diplomacy, an aspect of foreign policy in which the RMAS plays a pivotal role.

The episode, trivial in some lights yet potentially explosive, can be made useful precisely because it brought all these issues together: the British military ethos, defence diplomacy, racism directed at Muslims. In the next chapter we look at the harm that racism does inside the organization.

How far have the reforms ushered in by a commitment to cultural diversity managed to create an environment where abuse and discrimination are confronted, not for reasons of political correctness but as obstacles to functional working relationships?