One for the spooks! [Updated – From the horse’s mouth!]

As we all know, a group of British servicepeople was captured by Iranian forces in disputed circumstances, and released after two weeks. Both sides have now used them in propaganda exercises in their respective media: the Iranians extracted apologies and admissions of possible transgressions; the Brits extracted a story of abuse. Both stories are no doubt true up to a point, but heavily spun.

The UK press conference of course took place after debriefing, in which the presentation of the story was obviously prepared. Tellingly, only six of the fifteen took part: these people are not natural spin-doctors. Also tellingly, the story was a bit of a damp squib: the worst abuse described was a pale shadow of what’s being inflicted by the US and its allies in Iraq. The British side comes out with egg on its face. Again.

So far, no surprises. What is more surprising is that the servicepeople are now to sell their stories to the press. That must mean the spooks have assessed them carefully, and concluded that the press will turn the stories to their advantage. It’s a high-risk strategy, so they must presumably see high returns.

But how high-risk is it really? They can make some pretty good guesses about important aspects of the story. It’s easy to enumerate the newspapers with the biggest chequebooks to buy an “exclusive” on this kind of story, and they’re jingoistic rags who will want to tell a story of British heroism and Iranian villainy: James Bond rather than George Smiley. They’ve presumably gone as far as to enumerate the journalists and editors who might take on the stories. And the task is simplified further by the fact that just one of the fifteen is overwhelmingly the most important: the sole woman in the party is expected to be far and away the biggest story. Of course that could be a mistake, if one of the men proves particularly interesting – all part of the gamble that any of them will come across right.

So the risk comes not so much from the direct stories, but rather from indirect commentators. And that’s happening anyway! So this is really about deflecting attention.

And in the precedent it sets. That’s sure to come back to bite. But it’ll be the successors to the people who took this decision getting bitten, so that’s OK.

If anyone from the mainstream media is reading this, please get some well-informed comment from outside the official line. I want to hear what John Le Carré may have to say on this subject!

[UPDATE] One of them has just been on the radio saying “I’m not doing it for the money, just to set the record straight”. Also seemed to say the money would be given away, but his words left some ambiguity. Should’ve foreseen that gambit! BUT … that just highlights the suspect premise underlying those words, the assumption that he’s going to sell his story in the first place, all the more starkly.

[UPDATE 2 – Monday Morning] They’ve just had Kelvin Mackenzie on the radio confirming my speculation.  Not so long ago, he was editor of “The Sun” (a very big name in trash chequebook journalism), so he should know!  And he adds that last week, someone from MoD PR was indeed sniffing around the relevant newspapers, doing the research on how they’d play this.

Posted on April 8, 2007, in international, iran, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. John (not Le Carre)

    So the MOD says it’s OK for these British service people to make money by selling their stories to the press.

    When I worked for an international firm of accountants, if I so much as breathed a few lines about what I had been up to (whether paid for the “story” or not) I would have been dismissed straight away for breach of confidentiality and would probably have found myself in court and financially ruined to boot. As for what my colleagues would have done to me, I daren’t even think about that! Of course I knew this when I signed my contract with the firm and wouldn’t have expected to be treated any differently.

    I thought service people signed the rather draconian Official Secrets Act to discourage (indeed criminalise) this sort of thing. I had to when I worked as a farm labourer at a government research institute. And surely military discipline and trust, which is so important when operating in conflict zones, is undermined when certain groups or individuals are seen to be singled out for preferential treatment? What the hell is going on here?

    Finally, if these deals ARE “OK” (and I’m certainly not convinced), then surely the employer (ie taxpayer) should be entitled to a substantial slice of the proceeds? I can think of lots of worthy areas of public expenditure where a few hundred grand could be usefully employed. As it stands, today’s news seems to represent an extraordinary new incentive system for our service personnel!

  1. Pingback: The merits of bumbling incompetence. « niq’s soapbox

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