April 09, 2007

But Seriously

As I'm getting geared up for my return to the writerly life, I've been having various existential thoughts about my potential careers, and my future in general, and all that kind of boring stuff. It's beginning to dawn on me that my strategy up until now ("just keep blogging until I am discovered and win the Pulitzer") is pretty unlikely to pay off – so I've decided to start sharpening up my formal writing with a view to actually submitting things to places again.

So, as a dry run I produced this pretty snotty op-ed piece about the scandal surrounding the Iranian hostages and their dealings with the press since returning home. The idea was to see if I could turn around a decent piece of writing on a time-sensitive topic, but in a slightly more, ah, mature way than I usually do here. Let me know how I did.
“I heard flashbulbs and one of the guys, who could see under his blindfold, said the Iranian press were taking pictures of us. It was all about the Iranian authorities making themselves look good.”

So it was told by Royal Marine Danny Masterton – one of the fifteen recently taken captive by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – over a celebratory pint of lager gleefully described by the Scottish Sunday Mail, in their exclusive interview with the safely home local hero. The characterisation of Iran’s agenda in capturing the British officers was an unusually incisive one: McCluhan’s ghost is hardly a regular fixture at The Crown pub in Muirkirk (a Scottish village best known these days for its trailer park), never mind on the pages of the British tabloids.

The comment was unusual for another reason, too: the Ministry of Defense usually forbids its personnel from signing deals with the media, especially for the sorts of sums that the hostages are reaping for their candour (Faye Turney, the one female among the hostages, reportedly earned on the order of £100,000 for the rights to her story). Although the MoD has always reserved the right to lift its gag order in exceptional circumstances, it has rarely done so in the past, and never with such magnanimity: all fifteen of the released captives were told to feel free to exploit their experience for financial gain. It was a somewhat unseemly accession by the government, and one that has met with a great deal of resentment from the public and the press (those papers not willing to shell out the several thousand pounds required for an exclusive, at any rate).

The reaction is no great surprise. After all, these are the country’s finest men and women; the thrill and honour of serving the Queen is supposed to be reward enough. What is harder to understand is what the MoD was hoping to achieve by encouraging such openness. The majority of the critics charge that the move was designed to exert some positive spin on, and allow the ministry a degree of control over, a story that has widely been labelled an embarrassment for the British: by letting the marines humanise the headlines, the truth behind Iran’s apparently benevolent behaviour would be triumphantly revealed.

If, however, the media circus was intended as a propaganda counterattack, one wonders who those in charge at the MoD thought they were going to win back. Certainly there were very few observers in the West who believed either that Iran’s borders had actually been crossed, or that the captives’ admissions of having done so were made freely and truthfully. Ahmadinejad’s “gift” of releasing the hostages was already being presented in the British media as an artificially engineered publicity stunt. The propaganda war at home was already won.

Meanwhile, the propaganda war in Iran (and, indeed, in much of the Middle East) was already lost, long before Turney and co. appeared on Al-alam, apologising for their mistakes and gratefully enjoying a game of chess. In any case, shoving them now into the tabloids with drunken grins and saccharine nicknames (Turney, we learn, was affectionately known to her crewmates as “Topsey”) is hardly going to convince anyone in Iran that the British are anything other than the feckless simpletons so expertly rendered by Ahmadinejad’s comparatively thoughtful publicity machine.

As it happens, most in the British media were unimpressed with the MoD’s grandiose display, perhaps sensing that too indecorous a pounce on the sacrificial lambs would disgust rather than delight their audience. (It is a fine line, and one that the British tabloids teeter along on a minute-to-minute basis.) The rumoured fees that had caused the scandal in the first place failed to materialise, with only the lone female Turney and Arthur Batchelor, the youngest of the captives at twenty, taking home anything like the figures that had been hastily scribbled and slipped under their front doors (back in Muirkirk, Masterton’s compensation was supposedly little more than his few drinks at The Crown).

And the MoD? They have found themselves the unwitting saboteurs of what should have been a relatively simple media campaign. Bring the hostages home, release a few tantalising quotes from their debriefing, and continue to condemn Iran’s conduct. There was no need for ham-fisted theatrics. Instead the MoD is now scrambling to defend against an angry public, a vitriolic press, and even the specter of a government inquiry – while their ill-conceived spin-doctoring has, it seems, failed to produce even a single extra sympathiser.

The most worrying aspect of the MoD’s quagmire is how much it echoes the broader approach, both in Britain and in the United States, towards propaganda in the Middle East: clumsy, inadequate, and neglected. The other side runs deft circles around our attempts at crafting a ‘message’, while those in charge stubbornly refuse to realise that even if their military victory arrives, they will have suffered a much messier ideological defeat.

Admittedly winning over the mob of opponents bred by the War on Terror will be an uphill battle – perhaps, then, we should stop throwing down ball bearings in our path.

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