The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, pre-empted today's second anniversary of the kidnapping of five Britons in Baghdad by issuing a statement calling for their release. He also defended the Government's low-key approach hitherto, insisting that a dedicated team was working tirelessly with the Iraqi government and others in Baghdad to ensure the men's safe return.
Mr Miliband's plea in his statement to "anyone else who might be able to help", however, suggested that the search was perhaps not much further forward than it was when the men, who worked for a private company, were first abducted. The decision of Peter Moore's family to speak to The Independent earlier this week showed the mounting frustration of the families with the lack of progress – but also, perhaps, an official change of tack.
It is true that any government faces delicate calculations when its nationals are taken captive in a foreign country by people seeking political or material gain. And, sadly, Britain has at least as much experience in such matters as other countries. The question is whether loud protests are more likely to bring the safe release of the hostages than a softly-softly approach.
The Foreign Office has long favoured the latter course, often warning friends and family of hostages that independent campaigning could reduce the chances of the desired result. An ill-informed intervention by someone unversed in all the complexities, the argument runs, could jeopardise the captive's safety, either by scaring the hostage-takers or cutting across a clandestine diplomatic initiative.
In the days immediately after an abduction, such considerations may well be justified. But it is hard to think of any case – from Beirut, through the kidnapping of the BBC's Gaza correspondent, to the hostages now held in Iraq – where the softly-softly prescription, by itself, or perhaps at all, brought the hostages' release. Once the Government has, rightly, made clear that it will not give in to blackmail, personal appeals could well be the most effective course. In this case, the completion of the British military withdrawal from Iraq only makes the argument for the hostages' release more compelling.