Middle East's sympathy 'evaporated' by handling of hostage story sales

A senior UK-based journalist working for one of the world's largest Arabic newspapers believes the MoD's handling of the recent Iranian hostage crisis has drained sympathy in the Middle East.

Mohammed Alkherjeiji, a former war correspondent from Saudi Arabia, who now works for the British edition of Asharq Al-Awsat, said it was "very rare"

to pay people for stories in the Arabic world and that many in the Middle East have viewed stories sold to the media as "strange".

He said: "As a journalist, I think giving permission for soldiers to discuss their stories with the press was maybe a public relations campaign that really backfired."

Alkherjeiji said images of the hostages in British media had drained goodwill for the hostages and Britain in the Middle East.

"Any sympathies that might have been gathered from this incident have evaporated after this [selling stories] came out.

"Iran is in a strange position — everyone is second-guessing what it is going to do next. The British soldiers selling their stories actually helped out Iran in the long run."

He added: "Whether they were there illegally or not has taken a backseat because of all this drama, which is a shame, really. If the characters were reversed here and Iran was in British waters, this thing would have taken on a different meaning altogther."

He said while newspapers would lose credibility in the Arabic world for paying for stories, this was only the same as "the belief in the western press that the minute you give someone money, they're going to give you a spiced-up story."

 A chequered history of chequebook journalism

• In July 2003, the PCC received a letter of protest from five national newspaper editors when it censured The Guardian for paying convicted criminal John Williams £720 for detailing his encounters in prison with Jeffrey Archer.

• In October 2003, the Daily Mirror was cleared of breaching the Code after paying Tony Martin £125,000 for the story of how he shot and killed a burglar trying to break into his home. The PCC ruled the payment was in the public interest and Martin had "a unique insight into an issue of great public concern".

• In June 2004, the trial of five men charged with plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham collapsed following a failed News of the World sting. When the case came to trial, the charges were dropped and the Attorney General found that one of the factors in the collapse was the payment of £10,000 by the NoW to co-defendant Florim Gashi.

• The only rules on chequebook journalism in the Editors' Code relate to payments to witnesses in criminal trials and to convicted criminals. The Code outlaws payment or offers of payment for stories which seek to exploit a particular crime or to glorify crime in general, unless they can "demonstrate a good reason to believe the public interest would be served".

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