A few days after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, which killed 21 people, I was cornered by a red-faced, finger-wagging Daily Mail man. "Do you condemn the IRA?" he shouted over and over again. In fact, I have always detested the IRA and, more than two decades later, was among the few to question Tony Blair's peace process. But this was the period of internment and, as I tried to explain to the Mail man, I thought the British government bore a share of responsibility for bringing violent death to the mainland. Besides, I couldn't see how my condemnation would cause the IRA to turn in its Semtex or comfort the relatives of its victims. The Mail man wagged his finger more vigorously and shouted louder. Only the correct emotional response, delivered without nuance, would do. Something similar has probably always existed. Anglo-Saxon ploughmen were no doubt cornered in taverns by red-faced men shouting: "Do you condemn William the Conqueror?" But for anybody suddenly thrust into the modern media spotlight, the demands to follow the approved script must have the intensity of the Inquisition. The peace campaigner Norman Kember may have had a hard time during his four months of captivity in Iraq, but it was nothing to what he faced after the SAS rescued him. "Stormin' Norman" and "Operation Desert Norm" were the Sun's headlines, while the paper's leader called it "a morale boost for Our Boys". Given that Kember, aged 74, is a Christian pacifist who opposed the Iraq war, you can see why he might want to opt out of this script. But a part had been allotted to him. After "celebrating with a cup of HORLICKS" (as the Sun reported), he was supposed to express profuse thanks to his rescuers and, if not repent of his pacifism, at least speak of his admiration for Our Boys who had risked their lives for him and the two Canadians who were also released. It is not clear that anybody did risk his life, because the kidnappers had fled and the British possibly had advance knowledge they had done so.
In any case, Kember's family and Christian Peacemaker Teams, on whose behalf Kember went to Iraq, asked that nobody should be killed in rescue attempts. But none of this could be allowed to deflect the storyline. The day after Kember's release, General Sir Michael Jackson, chief of the general staff, told Channel 4 News that he was "slightly saddened" not to hear "gratitude for the soldiers". The next morning Simon Heffer, whose writing has become more edgy since he left the Mail for the Telegraph, administered a good kicking. Kember should have learned that "the Iraqis . . . are capable of being a pretty loathsome bunch . . . who in many respects have had what was coming to them". The army "should immediately invoice him for services rendered - or even send the ungrateful old fool back to his captors". Perhaps Kember, having recovered from what must have been a traumatic experience, would utter the correct words in due course. But, no, he had missed his cue. In the Sun, Andy McNab, of Bravo Two Zero fame, explained that "the moment" was already soured. If Kember said "thank you" now, it was "too late". So Kember's press conference on his return to London, thanking "those who played a part in my release", didn't save him, any more than reconciliation with Cordelia in the final act saved Lear. The Sunday Telegraph called him "the selfish idealist". The Sunday Express pointed out that the SAS had worn old clothes and made themselves as smelly as real Arabs (I paraphrase only slightly) in order to escape detection. The Sunday Times recommended Kember should go "no farther than Eastbourne" in future. He was once a professor of medical physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, but the papers had him cast as an idiot. Omitting any mention of his professorship, the Sunday Times described him as "diligent but inconspicuous" in his job and revealed that he collected pictures of old baths. Only the Mail on Sunday offered a contrast to this chorus of character assassination. It ran four sympathetic pieces, including one from the columnist Peter Dobbie, who has a Weymouth holiday home next door to Kember's daughter and son-in-law, and another from Ian Gallagher, chief reporter, who managed to get on Kember's flight home. The paper's gentle tone wouldn't have anything to do with its hopes of getting Kember's full story exclusively, would it?
Reviewing the Guardian's new comment blog last week, I suggested the paper's regular contributors hadn't quite got the idea of blogging and, as an example, mentioned that Bernard Crick's blog on local government had elicited only one comment. So I should record that my own comment on the Budget - commanded by Georgina Henry, the Guardian's formidable blogosphere queen - also got just one comment, and that from an occasional NS contributor, Derek Draper. Unless Henry, piqued by my remarks here, intercepted all the others.