At the height of Vietnam, pretty much all a war correspondent in search of a story had to do was hop on a chopper, land in the middle of the war zone and find a story to file – and they were usually pretty quick in coming. Access was free and easy and the relationship between army and media was more akin to a wary “us and them” relationship.
All this changed in the wake of the Falklands conflict and the Gulf War. In these conflicts, a brave new world was brought about, one of embedded journalists and strictly controlled media access to any given conflict, to the point that journalists who went into the a conflict zone under their own cognisance were warned that they ran the risk of being shot by their own country’s forces if they were encountered in the field.
One of the major aspects of the change was a shift of control, a shift of perspectives, in that it was the Ministry of Defence and the Government, not journalists, who came to dictate what story would take precedence, or at least to believe that this was the case. But when you feel yourself to be in control, you give more and can wind up quite out of control of a story. In the case of the 15 recently released British hostages, the MOD and the Government minders failed to take into account that – as with a stage magician – it isn’t the seeing of the trick that matters, more the art of distraction. They failed to understand that a press they perceive as a friend is not necessarily playing to their agenda and will use smoke and mirrors to get the story they want. No one in the MOD looked carefully at the nature of the new relationship, didn’t spot how the media had adapted and so failed to spot a sucker punch coming.
Newspapers need content and they need scoops. In an age where everyone is after them, journalists have necessarily forged a whole new set of values in the name of simply being able to do their job – and it is imperative that they do so. In the case of the 15 released Iranian hostages, they put the full force of their persuasive powers to work, befriended them, created a set of personalities and got a hell of a story.
But, remarkably, the MOD failed to take into account the Red Riding Hood factor of such a changed relationship. They failed to see the wolfish smile under journalists’ grandmotherly clothing, as question after question came in and the 15 soldiers set themselves and the powers that be up for a fall. They simply forgot the fairytale and did not notice the long-term impact that letting the soldiers speak might have, even with the copy approval that they now demand.
Perhaps they should look to Hollywood, where the PR minders to the stars took control of story output in the wake of relentless scandal. These minders took control, but they did not let the new friendliness of the situation allow them to slip into the carefree attitude the MOD appears to have adopted. These minders should be respected by the MOD – they were always aware of the elephant in the room and were able to recognise how the media was forced to change tack, especially now, when stories have become ever more difficult to scoop as the market for them expands to fill the ever-increasing range of media outlets.
Bearing all this in mind, it is no surprise that the 15 soldiers were wooed into selling their stories to the press and even less of a surprise that there has been such a backlash to what they had to say. I have already covered the reasons they might have accepted the money, but it strikes me as naïveté on a grand scale on the parts of the MOD and the Government to not recognise that their relationship with the media in a time of conflict had been inextricably changed by their own actions and that they ran the risk, as has become so spectacularly obvious in recent days, of being – in their terms at least – hoodwinked.