Sunday 11 January 2009

How do you solve a problem like Harry?

A political and media feeding frenzy is brewing over the News of the World's scoop of an army video of Prince Harry using racist language.

Clearly, his stupid comments will embarrass to Harry, the Army and the Royal Family.

The Prince has apologised, though suggesting that 'our little Paki friend' was being used affectionately as a nickname. (The use of "f--- me, you look like a raghead" could well be thought worse). It should be little consolation that 'Yeah, God Save You' in his mock phone call to the Queen was not a bad joke.

Watch it at the News of the World site to make up your own mind.

The Observer quotes a Ministry of Defence spokesman saying: "This sort of language is not acceptable in a modern army."

I think the watchword for the Army should be to be clear they will treat this exactly as they would that of any other soldier, for example if something similar ended up on Facebook rather than a best-selling newspaper. Harry's Royal status and high profile ought not to be the cause of either a more punitive or more lenient approach.

If that were done, perhaps everybody else could calm down just a little.

I agree with Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome who criticises Patrick Mercer's reported comment in the NOTW that the Prince's comments are "unforgivable".

Perhaps Mercer, who lost a frontbench role over somewhat similar comments, is just trying to say that he does not think Harry should remain in the army.

But, if this is 'unforgivable', then I struggle to see what meaning the word 'forgivable' can retain.


Lewis Cooper said...

I understand your point that Prince Harry should be punished in just the same way as any other officer, and that this is based upon a rejection of the injustice that would otherwise arise due to the simple accident of his birth. And, of course, those who espouse the values of social justice must take care not to let this slide just because the example involves someone who happens to be posh and rich.

However, I think Prince Harry should in fact be punished for his racist comments at least as much as any other member of the army would have been, and perhaps more. I think this for two reasons.

Firstly, Prince Harry is very famous. He cannot help this, of course, and has not done anything to deserve it, but there we are. As such, where the very same comments may have slipped under the radar if any other soldier had said them, with Harry it is front-page news; his celebrity entails people like me now demanding that he be punished, perhaps even made an example of. Many people frustrated at racism that exists in our country and elsewhere will attack Harry, where in fact their point is a far more general one that doesn’t involve Harry at all. This is highly familiar stuff: Glenn Hoddle’s comments about reincarnation, Cheryl Cole’s fight with the toilet attendant, Ron Atkinson’s description of Marcel Desailly- all were met with greater public retribution than would otherwise occur because they were famous. That is simply part of the ‘gig’.

Secondly, Prince Harry is not just any other celebrity, but is a member of the family that ‘rule’ our country, and third in line to be our King. He should therefore be expected to act particularly properly, as occurs with non-royals if one decides to run for political office, for example. It is not unnatural that people are especially concerned that someone who could be our King sounds fairly racist, or at least detached from any sense of acceptable behaviour, nor that the calls for punishment be particularly fierce.

Now, the response to both of these points could be to say that they are unfair, because they represent simple accidents of birth. And it is of course unfair that the position you are born into unduly affects the way you are treated in life. This injustice goes two ways, though. Harry, simply because of the position he was born into, can afford to spend thousands of pounds on drinks on a night out even before he had ever had a job, and will never have to worry about paying the bills, or losing his job, or being homeless. This too represents an injustice, this time one that is very much in Harry’s favour.

Indeed, it seems that the royal family may be a bit of a problem, if we are truly concerned with the fact that the position one is born determines the type of life one will be able to lead. These effects of royal birth go both ways, and Harry here is experiencing the fact that one’s family background can at times make life a bit harder for you.

Anne Campbell said...
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Unknown said...

"Firstly, Prince Harry is very famous. He cannot help this, of course, and has not done anything to deserve it, but there we are."

And as such it is only the fact he is famous that this even made the news. Do we know if his friends cared? If it was a joke between colleagues then it wasn't hurting anyone. It was also 3 years ago and well before he seems to have learned his lesson about his actions.

It's a big ol' tabloid hype cake, I wish we'd stop buying in to it. Show me that he was intentionally aiming to be racist and that he intended for anyone other than those that understood it's context to hear it, then maybe there is a case for the apology as anything more than a PR clean up.

Lewis Cooper said...

Lee- I agree with your main point, that it is unfair that Harry will be treated more harshly than someone else who made a similarly private joke, just because he is a prince. That is kind of my point, too. Prince Harry is someone whose private conversations can become public,because he is so famous, and do often become wound up in the press.

Moreover, because of his position as third in line to be our king, he is expected to act in a way that we may not so strongly demand of others. This is, for him, an unfortunate result of his birth.

However, knowing this as he must, he should be sensible enough not to use racist words which most of us- who luckily do not suffer the same press and public scrutiny- would not use. And because he is a public figure, what he says, unfortunately, cannot always necessarily remain private.

(This is aside from the fact that nobody present complaining about the comments means little- for one, it is not clear from the video that Ahmed could hear Harry calling him a “little Paki”; nor is it straightforward that an Asian man would feel confident in a very white environment to say he was uncomfortable being called a "Paki", especially to a prince).

I'm sure Harry didn't mean to be racist. It seems that he was making a joke. I’m sure most of us do not find the step made from seeing an Asian guy to calling him a “Paki” to represent any great comedic genius. Clearly the upper-classes have reached a post-racist nirvana where such jokes are in fact covered in wondrous irony..

I also agree with your point, Lee, that these things do become caught up in “big ol' tabloid hype”. It is always frustrating that serious themes are treated in a crass and sensationalist manner by our media. It would be much better if such debates could occur more thoughtfully and with less vitriol.

It is a sorry situation for Harry that he will get criticized for his comments, where another guy just like him might have got a laugh. I do not envy his position in any way. He similarly enjoys privileges due to his birth, which are not available to others. This too is unfair (and on the more extreme end of things- as with those who have no home, while he lives in a palace- it is entirely unacceptable).

I am not by nature anti-Royalist. But it does seem to me that these two injustices, both associated with Harry's birth, perhaps lead us to a moral argument for republicanism, for his sake as much as anyone else's?

JEMills said...

I agree with Lewis. The problem is that Harry is in the public light due to the fact he is 3rd in line to the thrown. However, he does have a choice, he could easily abdicate. When people rush to defend the prince they should consider whether they would accept a member of the political class to make these remarks? Would any member of the cabinet be allowed to speak these words? Keith Vaz on the Today program made this point very clearly when he said how long would a politician last at Westminster if he used these words? Due to the structure of our state that is his position, someone who could become the head of state of this country, or atleast have influence over them.

An Asian officer in such an environment complaining about being racially slurred is not going to complain about the boss’s grandson no more than anyone in a similar institution, especially if he wants to pursue a career in that environment. But the apple does not fall far from the tree, and his father, who would have gone to Sandhurst has today come out and condemned the incident. Clearly he does not see this as army banter. Before we can forgive, redemption has to be sought. At present Harry has apologized indirectly he himself should come out and make it clear what his position is and not third parties!

Sunder Katwala said...


I think you prosecute your argument well and powerfully, that complaining about unfair treatment because of who you happen to be fits oddly with accepting the privileges and duties of hereditary monarchy.

I would, I think, still make the counter-argument that the maintenance of the monarchy is essentially our collective choice. Paradoxically, it is a 'democratic monarchy' in the sense that it remains only so long as it sustains enough public support (probably it needs to keep two-thirds support) and for the alternatives to be unpopular (under a quarter) for its legitimacy not to be deeply publicly contested (at which point it might still survive through inertia but would struggle to fulfil its public functions). If republicans have failed to win sufficient support for a significant challenge, then we need to find some rules by which we can operate such a system.

The Royals as victims of unfair public pressure ('the system is unfair to the Royals themselves as much as anybody' is a more powerful one post-the 1990s, and with our particular form of celebrity culture (which the Royals have themselves used post the 1960s with the first family argument). From memory, I think Johann Hari wrote a book which ended up with broadly that conclusion.

However, one can not base a republican case primarily on that - if the Royals do not agree and walk away- without positing a "false consciousness" argument (the oppressive sense of public duty perhaps). A slightly different - but related - point is that very little damage has been done to the standing of the monarchy by principled advocacy of a republican case, while rather more damage has been done by the Royals themselves (Princess Diana, while alive, and then the somewhat turbulent response to the Royals after her death; and various other controversies and scandals). In a sense, this fascination with the Royals may be a good sign for the Monarchy. As Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing worse than being talked about ....