Faked war report left Sky newsman ashamed, jobless and without hope

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The Independent Online

If his report had been four words longer, James Forlong would not have lost his job ­ and most likely would be alive today. Instead, he leaves a family grieving, and broadcasting executives ­ many already questioning their ethics after David Kelly's apparent suicide ­ asking: did we do the right thing?

The report that cost Mr Forlong his career at Sky News was screened on 29 March. Mr Forlong was on board HMS Splendid, a British submarine sent to fight in the war in Iraq, then into its ninth day.

His words, delivered in a dramatic tone, declared: "Beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf, the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Splendid and the final moments before a cruise missile is launched." With that, a member of the crew was shown shouting, "missile seen to launch" and a Tomahawk blasted out of the water.

His dispatch from the Gulf did not say much beyond the fact that a British crew was taking part in a hi-tech war a long way from home. But Sky News liked it enough to broadcast it throughout the day ­ and other news organisations also ran it, after it was made available under the "pool" system which operates when British troops fight overseas.

But there were two fundamental problems with the report. The submarine was not beneath the Persian Gulf, it was in dock; and no weapon had been fired. The crew had staged the "launch drill" for the benefit of the Sky News man. Footage of the missile leaving the submarine was library stock, provided by the Ministry of Defence. A Sky source said yesterday: "What none of us understands is why he did not insert four words ­ "this is an exercise" ­ and there would have been no problem."

Mr Forlong's cheating ­ unlikely to be the worst example ever inflicted on viewers ­ would have gone unnoticed, had the BBC not been on the submarine alongside him, working on a documentary series, Fighting the War, which stumbled across his methods by mistake. Two months later, as the series was about to be screened, the corporation, mired in an ethical controversy of its own over Andrew Gilligan's Today programme report, passed details of its findings to a newspaper.

From then, Mr Forlong's career was over. The journalist, on location in St Petersburg covering a royal visit, was ordered to return to the network's headquarters near Heathrow for a disciplinary hearing. Nick Pollard, the head of Sky News, cut short his holiday in Portugal to investigate. On 16 July, Mr Forlong was suspended, along with another journalist, the producer Lucy Chaytor. Two days later he felt compelled to resign, after telling the inquiry he had no idea why he faked his report.

Ms Chaytor, who was not on the submarine when Mr Forlong compiled his report, was cleared of all wrongdoing. She continues to work at Sky News, but was refusing to speak to reporters yesterday.

The anguish could be heard in the voices of Mr Forlong's television colleagues who would speak. "How do you think we feel? People here are so down. We have lost a friend. This is not a pleasant thing to have to come to terms with," said a senior executive. A reporter added: "Everyone here is very shocked." Mr Pollard said: "This is a terrible personal tragedy and a shocking blow for James's family. Everyone here sends their deepest sympathies to James's wife and children."

A source close to events denied Mr Forlong had been the victim of rough justice: "The decision was taken swiftly but fairly, at a proper hearing. Just because it was arrived at quickly does not mean that it wasn't a highly difficult decision."

Mr Forlong's family was struggling to come to terms with his death yesterday.

Several cars lined the drive of his detached 1930s house in Hove, as mourners visited his widow, Elaine, and children, Christopher, 15, and Katie, 12.

A handwritten note was attached to the doorbell. It read: "Please respect the family's privacy. Do not ring the bell."

A statement issued by Mrs Forlong said: "The family is devastated by his death, which we are still trying to come to terms with. James was a devoted, loving father and we shall all miss him desperately."

She added that Mr Forlong cared "passionately" for his job and had been profoundly affected by the circumstances leading to his resignation.

"He had been shattered by the recent blow to his career as a journalist. He deeply felt the loss of his job as a television correspondent."

Neighbours said they did not detect signs of depression. One who saw him days ago said he seemed upbeat. "He seemed in good spirits. He was always polite and friendly. Just last week I collected a mountain bike from him for one of my children and he seemed fine."

Former colleagues and friends in Brighton who have worked with Mr Forlong on local newspapers expressed their disbelief at the news.

David Briffett, a former editor of the West Sussex County Times, a weekly newspaper in Horsham where he worked for two years in the early Eighties, said he was surprised that Mr Forlong had faked the report: "I was shocked. It was not the James I knew.'' Adam Trimingham, a reporter from The Brighton Evening Argus, where Mr Forlong had also worked, said: "He was invariably relaxed and friendly. It's a terrible tragedy his life should end like this."

It is thought that Mr Forlong had not been able to find steady work since his departure from the satellite news channel. Last night it was reported he had applied for a job in the press office of the Prince of Wales, but that he was unsuccessful, despite a friendly written reference from Mr Pollard.

One mystery remains, however. In exchange for allowing Mr Forlong on board HMS Splendid, he was obliged to show his report to an official from the MoD before broadcast. Yet the MoD, which had supplied the footage of the cruise missile, raised no objections about its accuracy. A spokeswoman said yesterday it screened the report for "technical accuracy" ­ to make sure he did not misdescribe a piece of equipment ­ and to make certain his words and pictures did not compromise the security of troops. When asked why the ministry did not flag up the misleading nature of Mr Forlong's report, a spokeswoman said: "We would not be watching it for that sort of detail."