Leading article: He who pays the piper calls a dubious tune


After announcing that the sailors released from Iranian captivity would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, the Ministry of Defence was clearly on the back foot - as well it might have been. In explaining its decision, it said that permission was granted "in exceptional circumstances such as the awarding of a Victoria Cross or events such as those in recent days". Winning a VC and being detained at the pleasure of the Iranian government are indeed exceptional circumstances. But they are also quite different. Whatever persuaded the MoD that they should be bracketed together?

The official reasoning seemed to be that the stories of the 15 would get out sooner or later, probably sooner, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The rulebook might say that serving personnel were not allowed to enter into financial arrangements with media organisations, but what could prevent their nearest and dearest? Far better, officials could - and did - argue that the Navy and the MoD would "have sight" of what they were going to say and provide "proper media support".

Such an explanation invites two responses. It smacks, first, of abject defeatism. What price any rule if those entrusted with enforcing it say they cannot, or choose not to? The 15 ex-captives are military personnel, subject to military discipline. If they cannot be bound by rules, who can? It goes without saying that their story, told in their own words, will command far more credence (and so a higher price) than a story passed by even the best-informed third party.

Which prompts the second response. If the Navy and the MoD are to "have sight" of these interviews and provide "proper media support", how far will they also dictate the content? Are we talking truth here, or censorship and, perhaps, spin? How accurately will these interviews reflect what these former captives experienced? Could we actually be looking at military or political propaganda by other means? We are entering murky waters, where the border between fact and fiction could be every bit as treacherous as that between Iraqi and Iranian waters.

Yesterday, quite rightly, the considerations were of a more human and less conspiratorial nature. We sympathise with those bereaved relatives who had not sold their stories on principle and felt that to do so would have besmirched the memory of their loved ones. And it is hard not to deplore a system which pays next to nothing in compensation when someone is killed in the line of duty, but allows released captives to earn many times their annual salary from their experience.

It might be going too far to suggest, as some have done, that service personnel now have a perverse incentive to be captured, but it is worth asking whether the balance between fighting and surrendering might not become skewed. Money has introduced a distorting commercial element into an episode that is subject to a Navy inquiry. And if media interviews were regarded as inevitable, could the military not have stipulated that any fees should be donated to armed forces' charities?

All that said, no comment on this distasteful business would be complete without a recognition that the commercial culture of the media is also to blame. It takes two to make a deal, and there would be no issue here if certain media organisations were not prepared to pay for such interviews in the first place. The money on offer was a clear inducement to the sailors to break the rules they had signed up to. Regrettably, the decision of the MoD to waive the rules in these "exceptional circumstances" sends the message that personal enrichment, not just the honour of the service, is the new name of the game - even in Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

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