Friendly fire – 'We debated every ramification of the story'

The source for the friendly-fire cockpit video initially made contact with the news desk two weeks before we ran the first story on it.

We met that afternoon. It was obvious within minutes that what we had been given was almost certainly genuine.

A five-year prison term for breaching the Official Secrets Act would have been the minimum the Pentagon would have insisted on. We all became utterly paranoid – probably from having seen so many Jason Bourne films.

We altered the video from its original form. I burnt my notebook with the source’s details in it after transcribing the key facts on to my laptop. I even devised a secret code with the source to communicate over the phone in case either of our lines were tapped.

Many more days of highly protracted conversations followed, in complete secrecy, among a small news team and senior executives back in Wapping, often led by the editor herself.

We debated every single ramification of the story. We planned that reporters would doorstep all of Matty’s close family the night before the story ran, with a copy of the tape to show them first. Another reporter would doorstep the coroner at home to test the water about our intentions. Most importantly, we would inform the MoD we were publishing at noon the day before we ran it.

That was crucial for two reasons.

Firstly, if they were going to injunct, we didn’t want it in the middle of our print run, which would have cost a fortune.

Secondly, it gave them 12 hours to tell us the video was a fake. Once it had been in their possession for eight hours, we were confident the silence had given us the answers we needed.

With a reporter outside Matty’s widow Susan Hull’s door, I rang her at 7.30pm just before the first edition was sent. Morally, we needed her consent. She burst into tears and agreed immediately.

The story led every national news bulletin in the UK and featured on all of the major US networks too.

Thanks also to Trevor Kavanagh’s US sources and deputy news editor Ben O’Driscoll’s ingenuity, we kept ahead of our competitors for the next two days too, splashing new exclusive lines on the tape for three days in a row.

A quick postscript: The next week, my laptop was stolen from the locked boot of my car while I was at a lunch in Westminster. There was no sign of forced entry.

‘It must have been them,’a broadsheet colleague sagely insisted, tapping his nose.

Perhaps we’ve all watched too many Jason Bourne films.

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