WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, when The Washington Post decided to send me to South America as a foreign correspondent, the first thing I did was run out and buy a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” Published in 1938, Waugh’s great comic novel charts the misadventures of William Boot, a mild-mannered columnist who normally ekes out a living by writing, badly, about the English countryside — “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole,” goes one classic Boot line — but mistakenly is sent to cover a civil war in the fictional African nation of Ishmaelia. Hijinks ensue.

One of the book’s many delights is its over-the-top depiction of the swashbuckling, cutthroat, hilariously amoral British press. Waugh’s competing newspapers, the “Daily Brute” and the “Daily Beast,” will do anything for a scoop. Anyone standing in a reporter’s way is likely to become collateral damage.

By the time I did my tour of duty in London in the 1990s, journalism had become a somewhat more respectable profession. The newspapers were still hypercompetitive, though, and desperate to be first on any big story. There was no creature on Earth more downcast, more despondent, more inconsolable than a reporter on the Buckingham Palace beat who had just learned something juicy about Britain’s dysfunctional royal family by reading the front page of a rival tabloid.

Today, Evelyn Waugh would be similarly discouraged. He’d have to write a sequel titled “Shhhhh.”

I was stunned — the word the Brits would use is “gobsmacked” — at last week’s revelation that British editors colluded to keep secret, for 10 long weeks, the fact that Prince Harry was serving on the front lines in Afghanistan. This arrangement has been called an “embargo” by its defenders, but it is more accurately described as a collective decision to suppress an incendiary piece of news.

It took an American news outlet — the Drudge Report, which I guess might be the Information Age equivalent of the “Daily Beast,” at least in spirit — to spread the story.

There was, of course, a good reason why news of Harry’s deployment to battle the Taliban couldn’t be publicly announced. He is the younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, which makes him third in line to the British throne. He would have been such a high-value target for the enemy that his entire unit would have been put at great risk. More often than most people think, the news media do keep secrets where national security is concerned.

But Harry’s secret is 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.

And for another thing: Tell me how this was an issue of national security? It was an issue of personal security, to be sure. But the war effort would hardly have been crippled if some other second lieutenant had taken Harry’s place in the badlands of Helmand province.

That’s exactly what would have happened if the British media had followed their usual instincts. It’s considered news when Harry has too much to drink at a nightclub, or when he breaks up with a girlfriend. By that standard, it’s surely news when he goes into combat in the Hindu Kush. Had his deployment been reported beforehand, it would have been canceled.

The only reason for the media’s atypical restraint was to make it possible for the prince to go to war, which is something he really wanted to do. He has been quoted as saying that his stint in Afghanistan was the only time in his life he had felt like a normal person.

The problem is that he’s not remotely a normal person. I realize that Harry didn’t ask to be born a prince. But he doesn’t reject the idea of hereditary monarchy. If you accept the notion that some people are princes and some are not, then you also acknowledge that the accident of birth has consequences, both positive and negative.

I can understand why Prince Harry would want the media to respect an “embargo” for weeks or months so he could fulfill his dream of fighting on the front lines of a war. What I don’t understand is why editors would ignore their news judgment — and abdicate their mission — and play along.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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