Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The fakes that finished an editor, and the truth that won't go away

A 'scoop' that made headlines round the world ended with Piers Morgan leaving the 'Mirror' in disgrace. Francis Elliott follows the trail of the phoney photographs to a TA camp in Preston.

16 May 2004

If past form is a true guide, Piers Morgan woke in his riverside flat in west London yesterday morning and enjoyed a "blissful" moment of alcohol-induced amnesia.

The former newspaper editor held a small wake at his Fulham address after being "whacked" in true Fleet Street style, escorted from his boss's office without time even to collect his coat. The photographers camping outside heard laughter and music coming from the first-floor balcony.

It is not known what refreshment was taken, but Morgan once said, "I always try and celebrate a massive error - preferably with a few bottles of chilled Krug and a jug of Jack Daniel's". That way, he said, "you then have that blissful moment in the morning when you're so hungover you literally can't remember your crime".

The consolations of champagne and bourbon are unlikely to have lasted for long, however, as the enormity of this career-ending blunder dawned. As an aide-memoire, he had the black-bordered edition of his former paper with its headline, "Sorry ... We Were Hoaxed".

The beginning of the end came on Monday when officers from the special investigation branch (SIB) of the Royal Military Police finally tracked down one of the two soldiers dubbed "A" and "B" by the Daily Mirror. Army detectives had identified the lorry used in the hoax from scratches shown in the now infamous pictures. The unit involved was then easy to pin down, with the help of weapons records at the Kimberly TA Barracks, near Preston, where the pictures are thought to have been staged.

Investigators had gone to great lengths to prove that the pictures were fakes, including drafting in an independent medical forensic expert to give his opinion on the liquid seen in the front page image. His professional opinion, based on flow and viscosity, was that it could not be urine.

Meanwhile, men from the regiment under suspicion, the Queen's Lancashire (QLR), were confined to Dhekelia Barracks in Cyprus, and interrogated by the SIB. Text messages to their homes in Lancashire graphically described the rigours of the military police. In one, a soldier revealed new orders to hand over to the Army all pictures taken during the invasion and occupation of southern Iraq last year, including the snapshots they brought home when they were on leave in Britain during the winter.

The soldier's father said: "You could tell things are bad in Cyprus. I got one text message from my lad that said, 'What a naughty regiment we are! Confined to barracks. Two lads sent back to Colchester for trying to get a drink. Whole regiment threatened with being disbanded.'"

Another QLR soldier who was sent back to Britain last week on a training programme, sent a message that read: "Phew. I'm out of Cyprus. They looked up my arse and down my piss-hole before they let me go."

As the evidence mounted, the mood in the old War Office on Whitehall lightened as the Ministry of Defence sensed a comprehensive victory over the Daily Mirror. "When this report is published, Piers Morgan is going to have his balls fried," one senior official told The Independent on Sunday.

The MoD, however, could not wait for the military police report, which would, in any case, be sub judice. Ministers knew also that charges against British soldiers, including members of the QLR, were imminent. One Labour MP summed up the calculation neatly. "If Morgan had hung on until the charges he would have claimed vindication even if his pictures were shown to be fakes. We couldn't let that happen."

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, turned up the pressure on Monday when he said there was mounting evidence that the pictures were fakes. It was a message reinforced by Tony Blair on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Adam Ingram, minister for the armed forces, finally confirmed that they were "categorically" not taken in Iraq.

His words struck home on the 21st floor of Canary Wharf, London, the board room of Trinity Mirror where senior executives were acutely aware of the growing nervousness among the company's institutional investors.

By Friday morning there were distinct signs of a shareholders' revolt. Isis Asset Management and Deutsche Asset Management went on the record to register their concern at the damage that the row was doing to their investment. In America, Tweedy, Browne - the investors that ousted Conrad Black from Hollinger, owners of The Daily Telegraph - kept quiet in public, but one analyst said US shareholders were "horrified" and "shocked" by the way in which the story was unravelling.

It took one final push from the Army, however, to see off Piers Morgan. On Friday afternoon the QLR convened a press conference to show the world's media exactly how the Daily Mirror photographs could not be real. In regimental ties and double-breasted suits, Brig Geoff Sheldon and Col David Black shredded Mr Morgan's case.

Displaying a knack for the soundbite of which Mr Morgan himself might have been proud, Col Black said the photographs had been a "a recruiting poster for al-Qa'ida". He added: "It is time that the ego of one editor is measured against the life of a soldier."

Sly Bailey, the Trinity Mirror chief executive, watching on television, knew the time had come to part company with the editor of the daily tabloid. Despite yesterday's apology, the Daily Mirror insists that it made "rigorous checks" before publishing the photographs.

Staff say Mr Morgan agonised over whether to use them, not because he did not believe that they were genuine but because he worried at the effect on British troops in Iraq. The final decision was taken after a vote in an editorial conference and with the blessing of Ms Bailey, they say.

No mitigation could save Mr Morgan from the final, awful truth that he was the victim of a "calculated and malicious hoax". The former editor hoped to survive with the defence that, although bogus, they "accurately illustrated" the wider truth of abuses in Iraq. The fakes contaminated legitimate concerns, however, and eased pressure on ministers just as they were facing calls to admit what they knew of genuine abuses by both British and US forces.

That's an "error" it should take Piers Morgan more than a few drinks to forget.

Additional reporting by Andrew Rosthorn

The QLR's 'quiet satisfaction' over the fake Iraqi abuse pictures may be short-lived. Raymond Whitaker reports on the case against its soldiers, first revealed by the 'IoS', who will be charged over the death of Baha Mousa

The Independent on Sunday was the first newspaper to reveal the death of an Iraqi in British military custody. On 4 January this year Robert Fisk reported that eight young Iraqis arrested at a Basra hotel last September had been kicked and beaten so severely that one of them, Baha Mousa, had died.

The story was backed up not only by the testimony of Kifah Taha, himself beaten so badly that he suffered kidney failure, but by official documents, including a letter of condolence from the commander of British forces in Basra and an offer of £4,500 compensation.

And the unit in question? The Queen's Lancashire Regiment, which yesterday was reported to be "quietly satisfied" at having seen off Piers Morgan, sacked after the Daily Mirror admitted photographs it had published of QLR soldiers apparently mistreating Iraqis were fake.

The IoS kept pursuing the issue of brutality in Iraq, revealing on 11 January that the Ministry of Defence was investigating nine more deaths at the hands of British soldiers. Several took place in custody, others on the streets. Other cases involving serious injury, rough handling by troops or opening fire in possible breach of the rules of engagement came to light, involving the QLR and three other regiments. Last week, the Parachute Regiment was also said to be under investigation.

The question of whether some British soldiers in Iraq had dishonoured the service received little attention, however, until the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses erupted in America. Adam Price, a Plaid Cymru MP who had taken up the issue, prised details out of the MoD in a series of parliamentary questions. A Birmingham human rights lawyer, Phil Shiner, last week brought 20 cases involving alleged mistreatment of Iraqis by British troops to the High Court, seeking an independent judicial review. A full hearing is due in late July.

Yet the Government appeared to feel little pressure to explain what it was doing about such allegations until photographs emerged of female American military police humiliating naked detainees. Suddenly the question of abuse - by anyone, anywhere - was on the news agenda, especially after the Daily Mirror came out with its own set of pictures.

The BBC, for example, did not cover the Mousa story on television until early this month, when it showed an interview with Mousa's father - five months after he spoke to the IoS. Several newspapers also discovered the issue for the first time. Although no soldier has yet been charged or suspended in any of the investigations being carried out by the Royal Military Police, the IoS has learned that all that is about to change: charges over Mousa's death and another case will be brought this week. The QLR's satisfaction may be short-lived: proving that the Mirror pictures are fakes has not removed the possibility of disgrace for the regiment over genuine, and far more serious, crimes.

For Mr Price, the lesson is that the Government should have reacted with as much vigour as it did when the Mirror photographs were first published. Resisting the urge to question their authenticity, the country's most senior military officer, General Sir Mike Jackson, was put up to promise that the behaviour they showed would be investigated forthwith.

"One of the biggest failings in this whole affair is the lack of candour, transparency and urgency in getting things out in the open as soon as possible," said the MP. "If the Government had moved sooner [on the original allegations], the collateral damage it has suffered from the far wider and much worse allegations against US forces would have been minimised."

There is ample evidence that the US authorities were as reluctant as their British counterparts to heed indications of abuses in Iraq by their soldiers, but the greater openness of American society has ensured that since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the details have come pouring out. On Friday Corporal Charles Graner, who appears in many of the prison photographs wearing heavy rubber gloves, became the fourth soldier to be sent for court-martial over the scandal, facing more charges than any other accused.

A decision is still pending against other soldiers, including Corporal Graner's pregnant girlfriend, Lynndie England, who posed with a naked detainee on a leash. More photographs and videos were shown last week to members of Congress, including, it is alleged, savage beatings, a prisoner being sodomised with a broomstick, women detainees forced to show their breasts, and the rape of young boys by Iraqi guards. A US network is reported to have obtained one of the videos, and to be planning to show it this week.

Amid the dismay caused by the photographs, and the retaliation of the group which kidnapped and beheaded an American contractor, Nick Berg, there has been a wider theme. A torrent of detail has emerged about torture and "stress techniques" used on suspects during interrogation at secret CIA facilities around the world. These practices were endorsed while Major General Geoffrey Miller was running the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay; he is now in charge of prisons in Iraq. Although the US military has just announced a ban on such techniques, this will have no impact on undercover interrogations.

Many commentators have suggested that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were part of a post-9/11 "anything goes" culture emanating from the top of the Bush administration, and in particular Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary and architect of the Iraq war. Now Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who broke the scandal open, is reporting in the forthcoming issue of The New Yorker that it is rooted in a decision approved last year by Mr Rumsfeld to expand a secret operation against al-Qa'ida to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. The result was that secret operatives, some with aliases, worked side by side with the military police now in the limelight, and imbued them with their uncompromising methods.

Even Mr Hersh's original revelations might not have achieved such an impact if The New Yorker had not obtained photographs of Ms England and her friends and put them on its website. This is a war of images, in which Downing Street hopes to obtain some succour from its victory over the Daily Mirror, while the White House pronounces that what happened to Nick Berg is far worse than anything in Abu Ghraib. If more evidence emerges of transgressions by British or American servicemen or women, will we need to see the pictures before we believe it?


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