Cashing in on miltary failures
The Ministry of Defence decision to allow military personnel freed by Iran to sell their stories sparked an outcry - although defence Secretary Des Brown has now imposed a ban on military personnel selling their stories. Mark Nicholls reports.
The Ministry of Defence decision to allow military personnel freed by Iran to sell their stories sparked an outcry - although defence Secretary Des brown has now imposed a ban on military personnel selling their stories. But as EDP defence writer MARK NICHOLLS says, the bigger challenge for the MoD is not so much “news managing” the current stories but the long-term implications of the decision.
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Some feel the Royal Marines and sailors released by Iran last week have been “cashing in” on their stories after the Ministry of Defence took the extraordinary decision to permit them to sell their accounts.
Others view it as personnel who operate under difficult conditions getting “just reward” for the ordeals they undergo.
Yet the decision is to say the least irregular, particularly bearing in mind that the MoD is normally so guarded in its dealings with the media.
We should not be surprised that the decision has triggered strong reaction: outrage, anger and unease in some quarters, while others have leapt to the defence of the military individuals.
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But there are a number of issues here that need unpicking and at the core of it all lies the “root of all evil” called money.
Those who defend the decision for them to “sell” the story have done so in a way that places the greater emphasis on their right to “tell” their story.
Even the MoD has defended its decision by saying that if the 15 personnel had not sold their stories, someone else would have made money out of them.
But every one of those captives had the opportunity to tell their story in full up at the Chivenor press conference soon after they touched down with the world's media duly gathered ready to hear what they had to say.
Instead, the MoD apparently “news managed” the occasion. Some personnel, notably the only woman in the group Faye Turney, were allowed to be absent from that press conference as deals worth hundreds of thousands of pounds were brokered for her Iranian tales.
What the MoD seemed unable to separate was the difference between sell and tell.
Once money was introduced, despite all the defensive cries of the recipients that it will be split between worthy causes or their service charities, there was always going to be winners and losers in the armed services.
I believe the MoD has under-estimated the long-term implications of this decision.
Yes, these 15 were put through a terrifying ordeal, enduring great stress and mental torture. But it was in a scenario where the world was focussing on their plight.
Contrast that with the young soldiers of the Royal Anglian regiment, under fire daily in some anonymous hellhole in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, living in constant fear of attack from the Taliban.
Contrast that too with the families and friends of the four army personnel who were blown up in Iraq as the Iranian hostages were being released. They will not be coming home to tell, or sell, their stories and it is no surprise their relatives are uneasy at what has happened.
Similar families with equally horrific tales to tell, but will the MoD grant them permission to talk because of “exceptional” circumstances?
That is unlikely.
But what it does mean is that in the future, military personnel who have been in challenging situations may demand the right to cash in on their experiences, putting the armed services in a difficult position.
What this decision does is redefine the military's relationship with the media. Requests to leave a family alone, respect privacy, or not ask them questions for operational reason may now be treated with a degree of cynicism - that the reason for not asking questions of public interest may be that such families are in negotiations over payments for stories from TV or media outlets.
This is a decision that will give the military less, rather than more, protection from media intrusion.
What should also be remembered is that military personnel already sell stories to newspapers, though as secret sources in a way that is neither recognised, condoned, acknowledged or approved of by the MoD.
The current selling of stories for six-figure sums also sees sympathy for the 15 military hostages evaporating in the public mind.
In the cases where Faye Turney or mechanic Arthur Batchelor sold their story, the MoD claims to have had sight of the article. Yet this takes us further onto dangerous ground, possibly closer to propaganda.
This is a point taken up by critics, who claimed the sailors held captive in Iran are being used as "pawns" in a propaganda battle.
Military figures, Tory MPs and even the Sun's former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, condemned the MoD decision to allow payment for stories about the 13-day ordeal.
And former Tory defence secretary Lord Heseltine said: "What an extraordinary story that people who every day take calculated risks with their lives are expected to earn relatively small sums of money whilst people who get themselves taken hostage, in circumstances which are worth exploring, can make a killing. I have never heard anything so appalling.”
Royal Navy Lieutenant Felix Carman said he found the subject of being paid to speak about the ordeal “a bit unsavoury”
“But I don't begrudge people who have been through an awful ordeal making a bit of money out of this. In the case of Faye Turney, she has a young daughter and the money could set her up for life,” he said.
Lowestoft Marine Mark Banks, 24, is understood to have pulled out a lucrative deal with the News of the World after he felt unease at the line of questioning.
The MoD defended its decision, claiming it was necessary because of the huge media interest and “sensitive strategic issues”.
Whatever people think of the decision to allow these people to sell their story, the MoD has made an error of judgement in this case. It, and thousands of serving military personnel, will have to live with the consequences.
In the Iran case, if military personnel were anxious that the truth should come out, they could always tell their story. Selling it is a separate issue.
Should the soldiers and sailors released a few days ago have been allowed to sell their stories to the media? Visit EDP24.co.uk to register your view on our voteline.