Media: A well connected hostage is first to be freed

The Friends of John McCarthy started it. Now an ad agency is trying the same thing. But what of hostages without friends in wired places?
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The Independent Culture
HOW DO you keep the press interested in a story that doesn't change? A tale which, perhaps for years, involves a couple of Britons held in a squalid basement? There are no new pictures, no fresh words from victims, no new demands from the kidnappers. You can imagine a glazed look coming over even the most soft-hearted news editor. After all, we've had Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan - where's the new angle? Isn't the reader/viewer suffering hostage fatigue?

That is the dilemma facing the families of two sets of Britons, currently caught up in quite different conflicts. By coincidence, each family will spend Saturday marking the anniversary of their loved ones' disappearance. Aid workers Camilla Carr and her partner Jon James will spend their 365th day as hostages in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Meanwhile, it will be three years since Keith Mangan and Paul Wells were abducted during a trekking holiday in Kashmir on India's north-west border.

For both sets of Britons, this weekend may be a matter of life or death. If their campaigns succeed in raising public awareness, the pressure will increase on politicians here and abroad to achieve a release. Hostage- takers often set captives free on such occasions to secure good publicity, says John McCarthy, the former Beirut hostage. He also recalls the thrill of receiving news about the campaign. "I remember being given a radio and hearing for the first time in 1988 [two years after his kidnapping] of the Friends of John McCarthy. The report said they seemed to be influencing Foreign Office policy. I thought: `Blimey'. It kept us going for months."

But it is not easy to generate press interest. After three years, the Middlesbrough-based campaign to free the two Kashmiri hostages is in trouble. "It's difficult to get into the nationals or the tabloids. They want something new and different, but we have had no signal since December 1995 that Keith or Paul is alive," says James Bowman, the organiser. There will be a commemorative concert on Saturday in Middlesbrough, attended by John McCarthy and Terry Waite. They hope to raise enough money for relatives to visit Kashmir to question those with information about the kidnap. But this story is not capturing the national imagination. One problem is that the Kashmiri hostages do not have the right connections. John McCarthy benefited from the massive support of his own profession - journalism - which turned his disappearance into the great Jill Morrell/John McCarthy love story. Likewise, Camilla Carr and Jon James, held in Chechnya, are set to become celebrities, this time thanks to family links with advertising.

Camilla Carr is an artist who drove across Europe in an old Lada to help orphans in Grozny. But her sister Alexandra is married to David Little, creative director of a London advertising agency. Since launching the campaign last December, they have held a service at St James's, Piccadilly, a rock concert in Ross-on-Wye and a 40th birthday party for Camilla in the Groucho Club. On Saturday there will be a "Vigil of Light" with bands playing in Bath's Royal Crescent. The family has just hired St Lukes, advertising agency of the year. "We need to get the story right about Camilla and Jon," says Andrew Law of St Lukes, as if he is selling a new brand of perfume or Continental lager. "From our point of view this is a kindly couple from middle England, who tried to help orphans in Chechnya and were kidnapped by the people they were helping. We will be focusing on Camilla because she is unique. We cannot think of another British woman who has been kidnapped. "We want to touch people's souls. But we think people are getting ribboned out - there are ribbons for breast cancer, for Aids, even for Louise Woodward. We plan instead to print half a million postcards, with a picture of Jon and Camilla and a message such as `Wish you were here'. You will be able to buy the card and put a pound in the collection box. The idea is to send it, say, to the British embassy in Moscow, to whoever you would send a card to if you were trying to track down someone lost in Russia."

So what does all this campaigning really achieve? Chris Pearson, who co-ordinated the John McCarthy campaign, says public concern embarrassed British diplomats into action. This time around the Foreign Office is at pains to emphasise its diligence. It has staff solely dedicated to freeing hostages. Officials even alerted the Queen to meet members of Camilla Carr's family. But you cannot help feeling that the Foreign Office is busier pursuing the Chechnya kidnap than the Kashmiri hostages and that this is linked to the professionalism of the lobbying. Certainly, Camilla Carr's family seems much happier with the efforts of the Foreign Office, which the Kashmiri campaign believes to be slow and ineffectual. Everyone, however, knows that lobbying carries dangers. In March, Aslan Maskhadov, president of Chechnya, spent four days in Britain, when he was handbagged by Margaret Thatcher. The Government likewise emphasised that foreign investment would be hampered until the hostages were released. The day after the president returned home, a gun battle with the kidnappers failed to secure their freedom. These days, the Foreign Office emphasises diplomatically that a "safe release must be the primary consideration".

Since then, the family has received a video of the couple showing them to be in good health. And hopes have risen after news last week that two kidnapped Swedish missionaries have been released in Dagestan, just across the border from Chechnya. The campaign goes on. News editors should expect to be courted to tell the moving story of Britain's only female kidnap victim. Someone in Russia is going to receive an awful lot of postcards this summer.

Contact the Hostages in Kashmir Campaign on 01642 801010. A fund-raising event for Camilla Carr and Jon James will be held at Jongleurs Comedy Club, London SW11 on 2 July (box office: 0171-564 2500).

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