Readers' Ombudsman: How secrecy over hostages needlessly added to one family's distress

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WE HAD to publish a correction last week because we made an error that upset and distressed a family.

We do not want to cause upset and distress, but the circumstances that led to us doing so are unique in my journalistic experience. And, frankly, it is time those circumstances were altered.

I have written about this situation before, but now circumstances have changed, and it would border on the farcical if there were not such high stakes involved. It concerns the five British men being held hostage in Iraq. Four of the men were working as bodyguards.

We carried a story last week on the tragic news that it had been reported one of the men had taken his own life.

At the request of the Foreign Office the four men have not been identified – well, not fully.

We know one is called Alan from Dumbarton. We know he has a wife and two children, one aged three, the other 14. There has been a picture of Alan published holding his newborn son. Two of the men have the same name, Jason; one is from Scotland and one from Wales. There is video of the Jason from Wales that was released by his captors. The fourth is Alec MacLaughlan, 28, a former paratrooper from Llanelli. We know he has a young son. We have had family members of the men appear in television interviews appealing for their release and complaining not enough is being done to secure their freedom.

The Foreign Office have asked that their full identities are not revealed, saying that information might "endanger the hostages". It also said "extensive coverage can clearly cause distress to the families".

In our report of the hostage said to have taken his own life, we identified the deceased as the Jason from Scotland, as did many other media outlets. Information on the Sunday (the story was published on Monday) was very hard to confirm.

We were told on Monday that, in fact, it was the other Jason the story referred to, and that the family of the Scottish Jason had been greatly upset by the reports, including ours. Of course, we carried a correction and an apology. But here we had a situation where distress to a family had been caused by the bizarre identification situation and a lack of communication. The very thing the Foreign Office is said to be seeking to avoid.

Let's be clear. The safety of the hostages is paramount – no doubt about that. And nobody wants to inflict more upset on the families. And I am not arguing that the identities of the hostages should be revealed. (Some cynics might accuse me of operating out of self-interest because that would be better for us in story terms – nothing could be further from the truth). We do not know the reasons behind the Foreign Office stance. We have to trust their judgment and we do not have the information to take the view it is wrong.

However, it should take a long, hard look at where benefits and drawbacks now lie. So much is now known about the men – are we really keeping anything from the kidnappers? How does that balance against a more high-profile appeal for their release? The FO may take the view it can do nothing about the information already in the public domain. However, there has to be a realisation that the limited information that is in the public domain can – and has – caused confusion and led to harmful errors.

If it truly is the FO's wish to avoid added distress to the families, there has to be far clearer communication with the media.

IT APPEARS Alex Salmond's Glasgow East earthquake was not the only seismic shift in Scotland. Dave Stone writes: "I was nonplussed by your report on a climbing tragedy in the Cairngorms where, it was stated, the body was found on Buachaille Etive Mor. The last time I looked, Buachaille was at the eastern end of Glencoe, so a significant geological event must have occurred if it is now in the Cairngorms."

Ah, sorry.

&#149 Contact Ian Stewart on 0131-620 8633, at readersombudsman or at 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS.

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