OPINION: Tabloid stories spell disaster for Navy PR

If truth is the first casualty of war, then the naval PR disaster we are now witnessing illustrates how the wounds can be fatally exacerbated by the addition of the 20 pieces of silver from the tabloid buy-up.

The decision to allow individual servicemen to play kiss and sell with the media was a catastrophic piece of PR friendly fire which has gunned down the reputation of individuals and institutions alike. The belated u-turn on the policy merely compounded the disaster adding to the impression that anyone with half a PR brain must have been on leave from the MoD over Easter. Those who took the original decision simply parodied the Nelson legend by turning a blind eye to the dynamics of a tabloid buy-up.

Firstly, newspapers and broadcasters buying rights to individual stories require measurable and definable sensation for their cash. Bids are linked to specific synopses of a story. Promises of revelations about threats or fears of rape/execution/mistreatment will push up the price of the story. All the incentives are to push individual sensationalism to the limits for financial gain, making contradictory accounts from the group inevitable.

The second dynamic of the buy-up is the certainty of the backlash from the media who either cannot afford or, for reasons of principle, do not buy what is on offer. Its reaction will be to be entirely quizzical of the accounts sold elsewhere. Investigative reporters will be unleashed to probe the inconsistencies and the plausibility of individual stories. Similarly the commentators from a range of media - Daily Mail, broadsheets and maybe the BBC - will turn their guns on the ethics of the buy-ups in which their outlets have not participated.

The third dynamic which the ­Navy PR-meisters failed to grasp is that once someone sells out to the media, he or she is inevitably viewed as media property. Future and past aspects of their private and professional lives will come ­under scrutiny from a media who now will view them as public property.

The same rules which apply to the reality TV star will be applied to serving sailors and marines. However hard they or their employers may try, it is hard to see any of the ex-hostages successfully mounting a privacy action when the media turns its attentions to aspects of their lives other than their two weeks in Iran.

Add the devastating resentment of the bereaved families at the ability of a few to make money many times the amount of a Forces widow's pension from surviving unscathed from a moderate ordeal and you have one of the crassest PR blunders of all time.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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