Monday, April 09, 2007

Censored views on the Iranian/UK media circus

HMS Cornwall

Updated Tuesday 12:45 (French time) : Ceri Radford (the Telly's Moderator-in Chief) has just appeared on Toby Harnden's post, apologizing for my comment not appearing (see below). Thanks Ceri, I guessed there must have been a momentary lapse somewhere. Hope you don't mind me squawking when it happens. I look forward to seeing you maybe at your Blogaholics evening on Thursday, assuming I'm allowed past the commissionaire, and that Bill Taylor is not lying in wait with his water pistol.
The following was sent at 14:00 to Toby's thread by way of formal acknowledgement of, and thank you for, the Telly's change of mind. I also used the opportunity to flesh out my view that the "hostages" had not disgraced their uniform, and to dissociate myself from the personal tone of comment No 104 (currenly the most recent), levelled at Toby Harnden, to appear from one "Christopher Monson".

"Thanks, Ceri, for allowing my comment finally to appear.

The present score on this thread would appear to be roughly as follows:

Pro-Toby's line (it's disgraceful, stain on the Navy's reputation, would never have happened in my day etc ) : about 97

Anti-Toby's line ( uniquely difficult circumstances, not the time or place for heroics, MOD fighting fire with fire etc): 3

Undecided - a tiny handful

OK, so the first round in the media war went to the Iranians, with their pre-prepared strike. It has left us humiliated and in disarray. But we should be regrouping, not screaming recriminations at one another.Those sailors and marines were really doing a policeman's job, lightly armed to deal with smugglers, not with commandos from across the border.
One could go on, questioning people's expectations of how they should have responded, based on the premise that the 15 were POWs.
They were not: the Iranians appeared to be treating them more as spies, and who's to say that covert surveillance was not part of the job description ? Did not one of the Cornwall's officers say as much in an earlier TV programme ?
The captives' position was highly ambiguous, so they did what to my mind was the sensible thing - humour their captors, and say or do whatever was necessary to expedite their early release, thus avoiding a repeat of the hostage crisis in the 70s, where US diplomats (no less) were held captive and used as pawns, and Carter's presidency was paralysed.

I see the events of the last two weeks as a Dunkirk situation. What's needed now is some Dunkirk spirit.

Toby Harnden's line is unhelpful. So too is Christopher Monson's, reducing it to a personal level. One wonders if that name is not a pseudonym for the same individual who came out of the woodwork when Toby had his "Hoodgate" moment late last year.

I won't mind (or protest), Ceri, if you choose to delete that last paragraph."

Updated Tuesday 12:40 "Stifled protest" has just appeared as Comment number 101 on Toby Harnden's Telegraph blog. See the earlier update below (10:40) for what it said , and the reasons for why I sent it.

Updated Tuesday 10:40

Rather than add new comments on the end, as previously, they will now go at the top- which is, after all, how blogs were originally run, ie reverse chronological order, aka last come, first served.

The number of comments on Toby Harndon's blog is now close to 100. Most agree with Toby's line ("shameful episode from start to finish, just what is the Royal Navy coming to, it wasn't like that in my day, etc"). But cracks are forming in this simplistic, breast-beating, sackcloth and ashes rendering of events. Here's one from "Emily":

A heroine

I disagree totally with Toby Harnden's diatribe against the 15, and like the previous writer, I was very impressed by the television performance of Faye Turney tonight.The media (and I'm afraid I must include the Telegraph in this) has been quick to jump on the bandwagon by attacking these people even before all the facts were known. The press, not least Harnden himself, bear some responsibility for stirring up the anti-navy furore we are now witnessing.
emily jones at 09 Apr 2007 22:26

I have just submitted the following, by way of support. It was an opportunity to tell the moderators that Toby Harndon feels my previous comment ought not to have been blocked, though I've no doubt he may have told them that himself (see his email below) :

My title: Stifled protest

"Please see Emily Jones's comment above, M.I.Lander.

There are those of us who think that Media Circus Mark III is underway on this blog, with Toby Harndon as the ringmaster. I said as much yesterday, making reference to Toby's second sentence - the reference to VC holders- which was at best misleading.

My comment was held back, aka censored, but you can read it on my own blog, together with an email from Toby Harndon. He, to his credit, bemoans the fact my lone voice crying in the wilderness was not allowed to be heard here, thanks to the Telegraph's current guidelines on comment moderation.

Please note:I am not attacking the Telegraph's right to moderate. But in this instance, the reasons for my comment being blocked seem to be out of concern for Toby's finer feelings ( notably my suggestion that he took the MOD's comments re VC holders out of context - making the MOD look silly and/or naïve). Since Toby himself is not unduly bothered, and denies my suggestion, then the Telegraph ought to reconsider its decision.

Updated Monday 20:40 (email from Toby Harnden : scroll down to blue font)

Original introduction

The word "censored" in my title usually conveys a strong pejorative tone - that one has been denied the free speech to which we are entitled. My own position is a little more qualified- free speech is something that can be abused, as I know to my cost, so where blogs and reader comment generally are concerned, the moderator's eagle eye, combine with occasional use of the blue pencil is not only inevitable but often essential.

But there are occasions when I find myself blue-pencilled without being entirely sure why. Yesterday was a case in point, when I tried, unsuccesfully to add my view to that of 437 people (at the latest count) posting the online Sunday Times's lead story . It was on that surprising decision by the MOD to allow the sailors and marines who had been captured and detained by the Iranians to sell their stories. Surprising, perhaps, but possibly a rational response to Iranian attempts to disorient and humiliate via alternating solitary confinement and then media exposure of our captured sailors and marines ?

"What happened in Tehran, played out before the world's TV cameras, was wholly exceptional, and I think the sailors and marines are to be congratulated for rolling with the punches. Had they not done so, we could have ended up in Jimmy Carter's predicament of a permanent hostage crisis that paralysed government.

Suppose the 15 had stuck to a "name, rank and number routine". That would have fuelled suspicion among the hothead element in Iran that they had something to hide, eg were carrying out covert surveillance on behalf of the US.

Each day they were in captivity ran the risk that Blair and Beckett would succumb to our own hothead element, or that in Washington, calling for "rescue missions" (like the one Carter tried ?) or ,worse still, the opening shots of a 2007 Iran War.

There's still a chance, admittedly not great, that diplomacy may still work, and Iran succeeds in cleaning up its act . The 15 would not have wanted to scupper that, and be accused of fomenting war."

And, again today, a comment send to Toby Harnden's latest blog post, failed to appear. But that's probably because I took Toby to task for his dubious and misleading way he began.

"Toby Harnden's post is an object lesson in what a skilful journalist can do with quotations.

Here's his introduction: "So now they can sell their stories? The Ministry of Defence believes the Tehran 15 should be treated like troops who have won the Victoria Cross."

Now read what the MOD actually said (cut-and pasted from today's Telegraph):

"Serving personnel are not allowed to enter into financial arrangements with media organisations. However, in exceptional circumstances such as the award of a Victoria Cross or events such as those in recent days, permission can be granted by commanding officers and the MoD."

So, taken at face value, and I see no reason at this stage to do otherwise, the MOD statement was simply saying that a precedent already existed for allowing serving personnel to talk to the press. But by leading off with it, in the way that he did, Toby Harnden makes it sound as if the MOD was saying it regarded the released sailors and marines as comparable to war heroes. But if challenged on that (as here) Toby can say that the wrong construction has been placed on his words. Quite.

Having said that, I believe the MOD decided that the best way to respond to one kind of 21st century media circus is with another.

Undignified, maybe, and all the rest of it. But sometimes one just has to play it by ear, and roll with the punches - which is what the 15 were doing while detained in Iran, not knowing their captors' true intentions, and probably not wishing inadvertently to light a blue touch paper.

Please publish uncut, or not at all. Thank you."

Update: Monday 20:40 Received the followng email from Toby Harnden under Title "Great comment, Colin ...)

...but of course, you place the wrong construction on my words. Dunno what's happening with the blog comment censors today but have asked them to post your comment in full - apart from anything else, there are so many "pro" comments that some contrarian needs to disgree with me on this one!

Best wishes, Toby

Yeah, I feel in a minority of one on this business, Toby . But then Colin Randall says I take some "perplexing" positions from time to time.

But these are wholly exceptional circumstances - twitchy mullahs, phony war (of words for now), American build-up in the Gulf, our boys and girls patrolling close to the border ( and not denying that they are observing the Iranians closely etc etc ).

Five days ago the blogs were full of comments ( mainly from the US ) along the lines of "nuke 'em," and even the Pentagon was straining at the leash to overfly Iran, which was the prelude to the Iraq invasion. We came within a whisker of having our 15 held sine die for however long it was -over a year- that Carter's diplomats were held hostage. Frankly I think they coped OK, knowing that once released their version of events would be given 10 times more credibility than that coming from Tehran. But instead of giving them carte blanche to strike deals with the media, maybe the Royal Navy should have signed up Max Clifford to advise on how to turn the tables on the mullahs- said only partly in jest.

Further comments welcome: email: