As someone who has been involved part and parcel in the modernisation of PR under the influence of the Murdoch papers, the internet and 24/7 news and who has watched from the inside as celebrities took to selling their stories to the press in the same manner as a butcher sells sausages, I am inclined to hang my head in shame in the wake of Britain’s Iran hostages selling their stories to the press.
I was raised to believe that you gave name rank and number in such situations, that a professional soldier was just that – a professional. They don’t join up to go on exotic holidays, but to do a job – an often dangerous and terrifying job. Capture is an occupational hazard for a soldier but in a world where the media eye is perpetually on hard focus searching for a story, any story, it’s easy to see how they could have been convinced to stand up and sell theirs.
I watched Jeremy Clarkson’s recent documentary on The Greatest Raid of All Time – a raid in which British Royal Navy and Army Commando units launched a seaborne attack on the heavily defended docks of St. Nazaire in occupied France during World War II. It was essentially a suicide mission, in which 611 men took on the second most heavily defended port in occupied France, and the soldiers involved knew it. An obsolete destroyer, accompanied by 18 shallow draft boats, rammed the St. Nazaire lock gates and was blown up, ending use of the dock by the Nazis. Commandos landed on the docks and destroyed other dock structures before attempting to fight their way out.
I was struck by the differences between that raid and the recent hostage “crisis” – in 1942 the soldiers fought against incredible odds to destroy the docks; they sailed 400 miles through hostile waters, and, to ensure the success of the mission, captured commandos remained silent even though they were taken back as prisoners to the docks, where explosives had been laid, just before the explosives were due to go off. By way of reward, these soldiers have a desultory plaque in Falmouth and are remembered with one documentary on BBC2. Look in the obituary pages of the Telegraph and you’ll see survivors of these kind of actions disappearing like flies, their glory days long behind them, reduced to a few column inches of praise.
Contrast this to the endless flow of words coming from the fifteen soldiers who bartered their way to freedom; they are front page news and the TV and newspapers are rolling over themselves to get the exclusive. But this was not an heroic adventure and the fact that their military masters allowed the 15 to be again paraded and held up as shining examples disgracefully diminishes the memory of real heroes who stayed silent to the bitter end. Of course Iran made the soldiers look foolish, but their lack of stoicism, their plain greed, is shocking to see. They sold their stories like any contestant who had just strolled out of the Big Brother house might sell their story.
This is an age where content is all, circulation is all and memory is diminished. It’s partly to do with the fact that we don’t know who the enemy is any more. It was easy to see how disgusting Nazism was – but now who’s the enemy? This may be a propaganda war but the Iranians appear to be winning it. Over here, short-term celebrity is outpacing real heroism and these 15 soldiers, pawns in the endless chess of propaganda, are the latest examples of a dismal trend.
The people we should be celebrating are the sporting Corinthians, the great scientists, the Florence Nightingales, the soldiers who fought and died without an eye on the media’s chequebook. I feel sad and a little culpable for this state of affairs, and it’s time someone said stop.
We need to stand back and take a good, hard look at what we’re creating: a worthless, futile world in which standards slip to the point of kids believing that the armed forces will do anything to get back home and, when they do get back, will then take money to talk about it. People need someone to look up to; who are we supposed to look up to now, when heroism is equated with money extracted from the media rather than a noble or remarkable action?