Thursday, April 26, 2007

Three weeks too late - a web exclusive

In the editorial meeting last Wednesday (18th April), my editor Ian Hislop asked me to write a piece for the Eye on the furore over the Iran navy hostages selling their stories the previous week.

"He's never going to use that," I said to a colleague. "By the time the mag comes out the whole thing will feel like ancient history.

On Monday we went to press. "Sorry," said Ian, handing me back the best part of a day's work. "I think we're just too late with this one."

So here, three weeks late, are my thoughts on that stuff you vaguely remember people getting very het up about back at the beginning of the month...

As the chequebooks of the Sun and Mirror snapped firmly shut on navy hostages Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor, their rivals were reduced to snapping up anyone else with anything to say on the matter.

“This episode has brought disgrace on the British armed forces and it comes from complete ineptitude at the top,” Colonel Tim Collins told the Sunday Times on 8 April, reminding readers of the silence other high-profile military figures. “There was not so much as a peep out of any of them afterwards, no talk and certainly no mention of money.” Colonel Collins book Rules of Engagement: A Life in Conflict (Hodder Headline, 2005) is still available from all good bookshops. He will deliver a “motivational speech” on “his time in the First Royal Irish regiment where he combated the loyalist murder gangs n East Tyrone and survived ambush in the deserts of Iraq” for a fee of between £4,000 - £7,000.

Having spent 600 words re-telling the Sun’s exclusive interview with Faye Turney on 9 April, the Daily Mail pointed out that “News that Mrs Turney alone is likely to make at least £100,000 was condemned by former Defence Ministers, ex-soldiers - and families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.” “I am appalled the MoD is encouraging them to profit from a military disaster,” former British UN commander in Bosnia Colonel Bob Stewart tells the paper. “Some of them are acting like reality TV stars.” Colonel Stewart’s book Broken Lives: A Personal View of the Bosnian Conflict (published by Harper Collins in 1994, a year before he left the army) is now sadly out of print, but fear not, his services are advertised by the Norman Phillips agency as “a frequent commentator on TV and radio” who “speaks to differing audiences on subjects such as crisis management… peace-keeping, the military and politics.” The paper also roped in Major General Sir Patrick Cordingley, author of In The Eye of the Storm: Commanding the Desert Rats in the Gulf War (Hodder, 1996), and one of the London Speaker Bureau’s “most in demand” stars, who is happy to tell them that “I think the sailors and Marines will regret it and realise it was not such a good idea to cash in. I hope they give all the money to charity.”

Over on Sky News, Turney’s fellow hostage Lieutenant Felix Carman informed the world that he is happy to “do media interviews for nothing.” “I think that myself and others find the whole money issue unsavoury, to be honest,” he declared – a statement only slightly spoiled by his first words after the camera stopped rolling: “who should I approach about auditioning as a weather presenter?”

The Daily Telegraph meanwhile noted on 10 April that “a tide of condemnation engulfed the Government last night after it allowed the 15 hostages released by Iran to sell their stories… ‘Shameful’ was the verdict of some bereaved families while the Conservatives warned that the Government had set a terrible precedent,” but failed to note that it had itself set rather a precedent when last October it serialized Barefoot Soldier, the £1million autobiography of Johnson Beharry, Victoria Cross recipient and serving Private in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

Last word must go to the Guardian, which declared in a high-minded editorial on 10 April that “nobody comes well out of the decision to permit Britain's released Iran hostages to sell their stories... The command structure of the armed forces collapsed on first contact with the Fleet Street chequebook. But nor should a free pass be given to the beasts of the media, so often happy to wave the flag and get behind our boys (and now our girl) but then, when it suits, to tempt them with gold… The challenge is to re-establish rules that work - and then to be prepared to enforce them. This means enforcing them not just on soldiers and sailors but on publishers and journalists.” The Guardian, of course, knows more about this than some, having been censured by the Press Complaints Commission in 2003 following a special investigation into their payment of a convicted criminal for his account of his time in prison alongside Jeffrey Archer – a judgement which the paper greeted by promptly threatening to walk out of the PCC.

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