Under heavy criticism, Britain’s government backtracks on letting freed sailors talk for pay

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LONDON (AP) – Britain’s government beat a hasty retreat Monday under withering criticism for allowing sailors and marines to be paid large sums for their stories about captivity in Iran.

Officials banned further paid interviews as critics complained that the fees, reportedly as high as six figures, were unseemly and a slap at families of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The appearance of the first paid interviews also brought new criticism that the 15 crew members yielded too easily to Iranian pressure to make confessions and apologies. Some worried the crew’s actions revealed a loss of Britain’s famed “stiff upper lip” in tough times.

“The sailors and marines held in Iran have been so compliant and have already said so much that they have caused excruciating embarrassment to many people in this country,” a retired colonel, Bob Stewart, wrote in The Times newspaper.

Defense Secretary Des Browne said that pending completion of a review of the regulations governing paid interviews, announced earlier in the day, all service personnel were now barred from accepting fees for talking about their military experiences.

The announcement does not affect any of the freed crew members who already accepted fees for talking to journalists, but bars them and all other service members from making new deals with media outlets, the Defense Ministry said. Two such interviews appeared Monday, but it was unknown if others had already sold their stories.

Browne acknowledged “many strong views” had been expressed against the idea of military personnel taking cash to give exclusive stories to the media. Such fees are a long media practice in Britain, though more usually for stories involving sexual capers and lurid crimes.

The first paid interviews appeared Monday in The Sun and the Daily Mirror newspapers, with The Sun bagging the most sought-after sailor, Faye Turney, the only woman among the captives. Financial terms were not disclosed, but other media reported the amount paid was in the six figures.

The stories came out a day after Iranian state television sought to counter claims from the crew that they were mistreated during 13 days in custody. It broadcast a video showing the captives smiling and laughing while playing chess, watching soccer on TV and eating at a long table.

Turney, however, told The Sun that she was separated from her 14 male colleagues and held in isolation for days at a time, echoing reports of her treatment made earlier by others in the freed crew.

Turney, 25, said her captors led her to fear she was being measured for a coffin, told her all her comrades had been sent home and forced her to strip to her underpants.

The crux of her story, however, was that her “confession” that the crew’s two inflatable boats intruded into Iranian waters was false and made under duress.

In a television interview with Britain’s ITV network broadcast Monday, Turney said she “felt like a traitor” when she wrote a letter apologizing for straying into Iranian waters.

“I had no choice. If I didn’t comply, I was looking at being charged a spy,” she said.

Turney also told The Sun that her supposed confession was motivated by her daughter, Molly.

“If I did it, I feared everyone in Britain would hate me. But I knew it was my one chance of fulfilling a promise to Molly that I’d be home for her birthday on May 8,” Turney said.

She said she had not accepted the highest offer for telling her story, and would donate an unspecified portion of her fee to benefit the crew of her ship, the frigate HMS Cornwall, and their families.

The Daily Mirror published the story of Arthur Batchelor, 20, who said he was singled out by the Iranian captors as the youngest of the group.

“A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst,” Batchelor, who also spoke to The Associated Press on Friday in an unpaid interview, recalled of the first moments after being captured.

While many people criticized the interviews, other freed captives defended them.

Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air, one of two officers captured by the Iranians, said he had not accepted money for interviews he gave, but he said his colleagues were entitled to do so. “I think it can be part of the process to get things off their mind,” Air said.

Royal Navy Lt. Felix Carman, who commanded the captured boat crew and appeared with Air and four other former captives at a news conference Friday, told GMTV that he thought accepting money was “a bit unsavory.”

However, Carman added, “I don’t begrudge people who have been through an awful ordeal making a bit of money out of this.”

Others did.

Reg Keys, whose son Thomas was killed in Iraq four years ago, said he believed the government was using the freed crew to pursue a propaganda battle with Iran, and he found that offensive.

“There are people serving in Iraq with possibly far more interesting stories who are not allowed to talk to the media,” Keys said. “When my son died, his colleagues were not allowed to speak to their families about it, let alone the press.”

The Defense Ministry had announced Sunday that it was lifting its previous policy of blocking serving personnel from entering into financial arrangements with news media, describing the crew’s captivity as “exceptional circumstances.”

Michael Heseltine, a former defense secretary, said he was “profoundly shocked” by the ministry’s decision to allow the paid interviews.

“What an extraordinary story that people who every day take calculated risks with their lives are expected to earn relatively small sums of money whilst people who get themselves taken hostage, in circumstances which are worth exploring, can make a killing,” Heseltine told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Those circumstances _ the appearance by some of the crews in Iranian videos appearing to offer regrets for supposedly straying into Iran’s territorial waters _ also drew new criticism.

“What happened to resolve against adversity?” Brian Jones of Penarth, Wales, wrote to the editor of The Independent newspaper. “This is the nation of Raleigh, Wellington, Scott, Shackleton, Bader, Churchill.”

Military historian Andrew Roberts, writing in The Sunday Times, compared the captured personnel unfavorably to Sen. John McCain, who as a U.S. Navy combat pilot defied his North Vietnamese captors despite savage beatings.

Stewart, the retired British colonel who was a commander in the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, said the crew gave in too readily.

“None of the captives appears to have been beaten up or seriously mishandled,” he said. “When you compare that with people who were captured during previous conflicts and who were treated so horribly, it is not easy to understand why they were so compliant.”

While Britain reviews what happened during Iran’s capture of the team March 23, British boat teams are no longer boarding commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf to check for smuggled goods. But Lord Triesman, a senior Foreign Office official, told the BBC on Monday that the operations would resume.

“I think those waters have got to be kept secure. I don’t take it that boarding operations will have to cease in the middle or long term at all,” Triesman said, without being specific about when they might restart.