Special Forces identity row after Sun clashes with MoD

Campbell: "Special Forces at risk from Bin Laden supporters if named"

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, has warned newspaper editors, broadcasters and wire services to stick to the policy of not identifying members of the Special Forces after a wounded SAS soldier was unable to go home because of the press outside his door.

Campbell said that the Government – from the PM down – was determined to protect soldiers’ identities, operating methods and capabilities.

His letter was dated 29 November, the day after Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon obtained an ex-parte injunction against News Group Newspapers and Sun editor David Yelland, banning the paper from publishing or disclosing the identity of wounded members of the SAS and giving the MoD access to all the documents and files held by the paper referring, either directly or indirectly to their identities.

The Sun was also ordered to delete similar information on its computer system. If disobeyed, the injunction could lead to a fine or imprisonment.

Sources say the paper’s executives, who were this week fighting the injunction in court, were angry at being singled out when others had gone further. They claimed that when the story was published The Sun had not even known the identity of the soldiers. They said Yelland’s assurances on anonymity, made to 10 Downing Street before publication, were thought to have been accepted. "It is completely heavy-handed on the part of the MoD," one said.

In an e-mail to Sun staff last week, deputy editor Fergus Shanahan reiterated the paper’s policy on SAS anonymity: "Any such story or picture, however innocuous it might seem, should be checked with the editor, or me in his absence, and [legal manager] Tom Crone," said Shanahan.

Campbell’s letter said Special Forces  were at serious risk, if named, from supporters of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. "Even before the Defence Secretary announced there had been UK casualties, journalists were present at the hospital where they were being treated and, more worryingly, at their homes," he said. In one case a soldier was unable to go home because of fear of being photographed and identified.

Assurances from newspapers on his anonymity sat oddly with investigations going on locally and the presence of reporters and photographers at his home, Campbell suggested.

"It is a matter of concern that someone injured while fighting for his country is unable to return to his home to rest and recuperate with his family because of continuing press interest. The interest in this has gone well beyond merely recording that casualties were suffered." The Sun responded: "It was wholly unnecessary for the MoD to have applied for the injunction, since the editor had already given assurances at the highest level that we would not be publishing anything that led to these individuals being identified.

"The Sun has a record second to none of protecting the identity of the UK’s Special Forces which has been amply demonstrated throughout the present conflict. The MoD seems to be unaware that such details as we did publish had already been broadcast by Carlton TV the day before and was already in the public domain."  Campbell’s letter reinforced guidelines already sent to editors by Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, secretary of the DA-Notice Committee. Last week Wilkinson told a media debate that, as far as he knew, The Sun was not going to publish the information.

 

By Jean Morgan

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