Absent friends

When a soldier dies in action, the press no longer gathers at the family doorstep. A government website now provides poignant, ready-to-use quotes. But does it also stop newspapers asking awkward questions?
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The Independent Online

It was hardly what you would describe as a media scrum. Two agency reporters, one sent by a national and one by a local paper, plus a couple of photographers, parked in a quiet road near Hampton Court Palace, doing their best to piece together the details of the life of a soldier killed in Iraq.

Within hours of the Ministry of Defence releasing the news that Sergeant Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, of the Royal Military Police, had been killed in action in June, reporters were on the doorstep of his elderly mother, politely and gently enquiring if the family would like to comment.

It isn't always so civilised. A full-scale media pack on a really juicy story can be an unedifying spectacle, but on this occasion, realising that the family was still stunned with grief, reporters respectfully left them alone and concentrated on talking to neighbours. Susan Hill, 26, an International News Service (INS) reporter, remembers: "I had knocked once and talked to his brother, who was very distressed. He told us that the Army would release a picture. So we were all parked down the road, when along came a police officer asking us to go away and leave them alone."

Shortly after that, the INS boss, Neil Hyde, received a phone call from a senior Army press officer, demanding that he "call the dogs off": "We were told that they were putting everything up on their website," he says, clearly surprised at such a heavy-handed reaction.

Sure enough, the following day's papers uniformly carried approved quotes from the MOD website. As it happens, they were rich in quality, full of pride and love and, dare I say it, possibly better than your average hack could winkle out of a distressed relative: "A nod, a wink or a smile: 100 per cent human being, dedicated to life in full. He was a man keen to help anybody, a fearless man, biker, hiker and climber, But above all, a man dedicated to the Army, his regiment, his unit, and to his comrades."

A thoroughly decent tribute, nothing controversial, nothing upsetting to a grieving family. And pretty good PR for the Army. It is a pattern that has become familiar to reporters covering families' reactions to deaths in areas of conflict abroad. The MOD insists it's not about control, its about protection. It is adamant that its first priority is looking after families and helping them through such terrible times. A convenient spin-off, however, is that while the MOD is delivering enough human drama to keep the media satisfied, it is also preventing families from saying anything off-message.

One news-agency editor, based in a community with a strong military presence, says: "It's very good work by the MOD, but it could also be a way of having no awkward questions asked of the families. People aren't being asked their opinion of the war." It is unquestionably bad for his business - newspapers, happy to rely on MOD-supplied quotes, have not been using his services.

The MOD has come a long way since the early Seventies, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when requests for comments were met with non-committal replies and promises to make a statement "when all the facts have been properly examined". Scores of press officers are now employed by the MOD, based with units all over the UK and abroad. In addition, specially trained casualty visiting officers advise bereaved families on what to expect from the press.

The MOD insists that it does not try to prevent families from speaking to reporters - and, indeed, persistent enquiries from The Independent on Sunday last weekend did unearth some previously untold stories.

A senior officer in the Army press office said that the MOD had long ago taken on board the demands of the modern media. "Having the press on your doorstep can be very unpleasant, with their offers of inducement, but we can't wish it away. Our principal concern is the interests of the family. Ideally, we will suggest that they find the very best photo and perhaps get a family friend to say something on their behalf. Each family makes its own decisions."

In practice, however, the military expects to be in control and families tend not to want to rock the boat, which explains the rose-tinted view of death as seen on the MOD's website, designed, it says, to give as much information as possible to the public in general, not specifically the press. The soldiers whose lives are commemorated on www.operations.mod.uk/telic/casualties.htm seem, as a rule, to have died doing a job they loved - and their families are proud of their sacrifice.

One of the MOD's civilian press officers, Howard Rhoades, dismisses suggestions of a plot to steer reporters away from the opportunity to ask difficult questions: "We're not trying to avoid anything," he says. (And, indeed, some angry families do make it into the papers: witness the reports of the war widow Lianne Seymour, asked to pay back some of her husband's salary.)

For many editors in areas with a high concentration of military personnel, a pragmatic response is required - and not only because they are mindful of the Press Complaints Commission's reminder a few days ago that reporters should behave "sensitively and with discretion". They have to live with the MOD in times of both war and peace. Alan Qualtrough, editor of the Plymouth Evening Herald, says: "In a way, we are part of an extended family, and we take the view that we deal with the MOD through the official channels."

The newspaper is based in the Royal Marines heartland. More than 6,000 men and women from the area served with 3 Commando Brigade, HMS Ocean, HMS Chatham, and 539 Assault Squadron, Royal Marines in Iraq, and even at the paper, around a dozen members of staff are closely related to someone who is serving out there. So, while the Evening Herald plays by MOD rules, there is also a steady flow of unofficial information that fills in the gaps and allows the paper to speak with a voice both informed and independent. And it is second nature to editorial staff to handle stories about casualties with extreme sensitivity. "Occasionally, we were frustrated by the slowness of the MOD," admits Qualtrough, "but once we understood the reasons, we were more patient - like when it took two days to inform the immediate family of the death of a pilot killed in a helicopter crash. It turned out that they were away at a family funeral."

Because of the Herald's special relationship with the Navy and the Marines, it is sometimes given special access, such as a facility trip for a reporter and photographer on HMS Ocean on its return journey to Plymouth, guaranteeing pages of great copy and pictures. "It's a bit of give and take with the MOD," says Qualtrough. "When the war is over, we're still here."