UK regrets sailor story-sell

Defence secretary Des Browne in a television interview said that the original decision was made by navy officials who were aware that media organisations were already offering large sums to the families of the detainees.

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“I was uncomfortable with the decision but I accepted the analysis,” said Mr Browne, who reversed the decision on Monday.

“So I accept with hindsight – and I repeat with hindsight – I could have come to a different view.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair later said he felt armed forces personnel would never be allowed to sell their stories again.

“Do I think it will happen again?

“No,” he said.

“But were people acting completely in good faith and honourably so far as the navy were concerned?

“Yes, they were.”

The 15 sailors and marines were searching a merchant ship on March 23 when they and their two inflatable boats were intercepted by Iranian vessels.

Iran claimed the British personnel had strayed into its territorial waters, which Britain denies.

They were freed last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Two detainees – Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor – struck deals with newspapers that published their accounts this week.

Ms Turney also appeared in a television interview.

The decision to open a free market in the detainees’ accounts was criticised by opposition politicians, retired military commanders, by many commentators in the media and, most painfully, by relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Calls for a formal investigation

Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron called for a formal inquiry into the naval operation that ended with the detention of the crew.

“Secondly, we need a full explanation of the calamitous decision ministers made when they encouraged service personnel to sell their stories to the media.

“This was a dreadful decision and there are still further questions that need to be answered,” he said.

Mr Browne explained the decision to allow the sailors to sell their stories.

“While these young people were still in detention in Iran, tens of thousands of pounds were being offered by newspapers and other parts of the media to their families in order to secure these stories,” he said.

“So the issue of payment for the stories was well in the minds of their families and indeed early in the minds of the young people once they were reunited with their families.”

Mr Browne said navy officials believed it was in the interest of the returning sailors and marines “to have the opportunity to tell their story to counteract the propaganda that the Iranians were putting out”.

Having decided to allow them to talk, the officials believed regulations did not bar payments.

“I wasn’t content with it, and I don’t think anyone was really content with it, and I include the navy in that,” Mr Browne said.

Detainee embarrassed he sold story

In a newspaper interview, Mr Batchelor said he was embarrassed to be one of only two former detainees to have talked for payment.

“My understanding was that everyone would be giving interviews.

“I can see why they have done the U-turn but I would have rather been told beforehand,” the Plymouth Herald quoted him as saying.

“If they had told me beforehand I wouldn’t have done it.

“I felt like I had disappointed the whole Royal Navy because only two of us did them interviews.”

Mr Browne declined to criticise the operations of HMS Cornwall, the frigate that sent out the 15 sailors and marines to inspect shipping.

“Many thousands” of such boardings had taken place without any incident, MR Browne said.

“I’m not in a position, and I hasten to add that that most of the commentators are not in a position, to second-guess the decisions of the commanders about how to carry out those operations,” he said.

“As I said in earlier interviews, as a common part of military operations there is a constant learning process.”

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