The British government on Monday temporarily banned all military service members from talking to media for payment, after withering criticism for having allowed sailors and marines to be paid large sums for their story of captivity in Iran. Defense Secretary Des Browne said "many strong views" have been expressed about the "very tough call" that the navy and the Defense Ministry reached in allowing some of the recently released captives to get cash for speaking with news media. "This morning we announced a review of the regulations governing this area," Browne said in a statement. "I want to be sure those charged with these difficult decisions have clear guidance for the future. Until that time, no further service personnel will be allowed to talk to the media about their experiences in return for payment." His announcement will not affect any of the 15 service members who already have talked to media, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. But it will bar the others from reaching new deals with media outlets.
Seized sailors permitted to sell stories
In general, all British service members must request permission in the military's chain of command to talk to media, and it is unusual for them to be paid to do that. Military officers above two stars in rank also have to request permission from ministers to speak to media, but in some theaters, such as Iraq, commanders are given blanket permission to do that over a period of time.
The decision allowing some of the 15 marines and sailors to sell their stories to media outlets outraged some military and political figures, as well as relatives of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But with newspapers and television chasing after the captives' accounts, some argued that the stories would have emerged anyway - more than likely in exchange for a check - from relatives or "friends."
The first stories appeared Monday in The Sun and the Daily Mirror, with The Sun bagging the most sought-after sailor, Faye Turney, the only woman among the captives. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Neither government seemed prepared to drop their dispute over the incident.
On Sunday, Iran broadcast video showing the British navy crew playing chess and watching television during their nearly two-week captivity, saying the footage refutes claims of mistreatment.
Turney, however, said she was separated from her colleagues and held in isolation for days at a time.
The Daily Mirror published the story of Arthur Batchelor, 20, who said he was singled out by the Iranian captors as the youngest of the group.
"A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst," he recalled of the first moments after being captured.
Batchelor also spoke to The Associated Press on Friday in an unpaid interview.
Paying for exclusives is a long-standing practice in Britain, though more usually the story involves sexual capers. Some of the most controversial payments were offered to witnesses in criminal cases, with more money promised if someone was convicted.
Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air, who accepted no money for interviews, said his colleagues were entitled to do so. "I think it can be part of the process to get things off their mind," Air said.
Reg Keys, whose son Thomas was killed in Iraq four years ago, said he believed the government was using the sailors to pursue a propaganda battle with Iran, and he found that offensive.
"There are people serving in Iraq with possibly far more interesting stories who are not allowed to talk to the media," Keys said. "When my son died, his colleagues were not allowed to speak to their families about it, let alone the press."
Michael Heseltine, a former defense secretary, said he was "profoundly shocked" by the ministry's decision.
"What an extraordinary story that people who every day take calculated risks with their lives are expected to earn relatively small sums of money whilst people who get themselves taken hostage, in circumstances which are worth exploring, can make a killing," Heseltine told BBC radio.
The argument about paid interviews overshadowed for now any questions about the navy's tactics in patrolling the area close to Iranian waters, and the crew's decision not to resist arrest.
Air, in an interview published Monday by the Manchester Evening News, said the Iranians were armed with a heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Air said he ordered his troops to put down their weapons.
"There were a couple of people about to make the wrong decision, and draw their weapons out to defend themselves. That would have caused more harm," Air was quoted as saying.
"We would have been within our rights to consider it, but if they had opened fire it wouldn't have mattered if we were wearing two sets of body armor - it would have cut us in half."