How losers in the bidding war turned on minister

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The Independent Online

Eight days ago, at the gates of Royal Marine Base Chivenor, the country's media stood expectantly, awaiting an opportunity to finally hear from the marines and sailors at the centre of one of the hottest stories of the year.

Eventually, word emerged that just six out of the 15 of the returnees freed by the Iranians were to be put up for an afternoon press conference. Repeatedly the question was asked: "Will Faye Turney be there?" The answer was no.

Hundreds of media descended upon the Union Jack-clad hall for the conference to hear a prepared statement read by officers Lieutenant Felix Carman and Captain Chris Air.

For the Royal Navy it was an undoubted triumph. After days of debate about whether their team had behaved with appropriate decorum on Iranian television or capitulated in an unseemly fashion, it was an opportunity to counter it with news of mistreatment and psychological torture.

Behind the scenes, however, far more important negotiations were ongoing as the world of cheque-book journalism battled it out for the prized exclusives. The one female in the group was considered the ultimate catch while the youngest sailor, Operator Maintainer Arthur Batchelor, was deemed the second prize.

Letters welcoming the sailors home were passed on, offering huge rewards for interviews. The bidding war was nothing new in the super-competitive world of British newspapers. But this was no celebrity kiss-and-tell. The intended interviewees were serving military personnel - a group usually banned from communicating with the press.

The Navy had taken what it believed at the time was a wise decision to control the bidding war, little knowing that the matter would explode into a scandal.

On Monday, the winners became clearly obvious when The Sun and ITV's Tonight with Trevor Mcdonald boasted a joint coup - Leading Seaman Turney's story for a figure reported to be between £80,000 and £100,000. The Mirror had secured OM Batchelor's tale at a far lower cost.

Immediately, the quality press and other broadcasters reacted with outrage. The tabloid papers who had lost the bidding game were savage in their criticism. The fact that the return had coincided with the deaths of four soldiers in Basra provided ample scope for scathing comparisons.

The two sailors, pawns in a military, political and media game, were vilified for dishonouring their uniforms. The welcome home had suddenly turned nasty.

Swiftly, the blame game focused up the chain of command to the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, and on to Downing Street.

By Thursday Mr Browne was left isolated amidst calls for him to "fall on his sword" as No 10 distanced itself from the whole affair, insisting none of its staff had anything to do with the decision to authorise the sale of stories.

And yesterday, the furore appeared no closer to abating. Whispers in Whitehall predicted that Mr Browne could soon pay the ultimate professional price for a Fleet Street bunfight that turned very nasty indeed.