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03.09.2019

Author speaks out after publishers pulled his critical book about the British Army

By Jane Whyatt and Simon Akam

Journalist Simon Akam, who spent a year in the British Army before attending university, was commissioned to research and write a critical book about the evolution of the Army post 9/11. When the publisher refused to release the book, Akam suspected censorship by the British defence establishment.

Censored author hits out at publishers who pulled his critical book about the British Army Author Simon Akam. Photo:private

The book was commissioned by Penguin Random House UK imprint William Heinemann. They asked him to research and write, in their words, an “explosive, intimate, authoritative“ account of Army life.

Even though Akam had recorded interviews on the record with hundreds of former Army personnel, publishers at Penguin Random House demanded full copy approval, with each individual named in the book signing off in writing that they “were happy“ about what was said about them. The publisher also demanded the submission of the manuscript to the British Ministry of Defence and the inclusion of the government‘s “amendments.“

In an interview with ECPMF, Akam explains what happened next.

ECPMF: Why do you believe the publisher is refusing to publish 'The Changing of the Guard?‘

Simon Akam: From my perspective, everything changed in January when Penguin Random House (PRH) was threatened by Dr Robert Johnson, the head of the Changing Character of War (CCW) Programme at Oxford University, and an academic with close professional relations with the British Army. (I'd had a visiting fellowship at CCW while writing the book; Robert Johnson’s official bio, which lays out his extensive relations with the military, is available here).

Contentious subject matter

The book was going through the final stages of its legal review then. Obviously for a book with contentious subject matter this was an involved process, but I was advised by my editor that it was essentially complete and that we were about to sign off the book for publication in March. Everyone was excited about the The Changing of the Guard - I had been advised by PRH to send out the PDF proof in order to secure endorsements, and the feedback I was receiving from my editor was that they were extremely pleased about the book and looking forward to publishing it. I had been working on the project for over three years and I had conducted some 260 interviews.  

Earlier, when it had become clear that my book contained criticism of the Army and that my reporting was stirring disquiet in the military, Robert Johnson had ceased to respond to any of my communications and I was only able to force a meeting with him by contacting other officials in his academic programme, for which I had paid £2,400 in fees to attend. At that meeting in the summer of 2018 I'd come to the conclusion Johnson was terminally conflicted by his professional relations with the British Army and broken off contact with him. The last text of the book that Johnson ever saw was before a major edit in which 50,000 words were cut from the manuscript and before any kind of legal review started.

However, a source who I'd contacted in order to offer the right to reply copied Johnson in to an email in January. Then Johnson, with whom I'd had no contact for some six months, wrote to the publishers  PRH and told them they should expect to be sued on publication – when asked for clarification he mentioned a number of individuals as likely to bring action, none of whom had themselves actually threatened to sue, and in every case with whom I’d had extensive reporting interaction and whose views were clearly represented in the text. 

Ministry of Defence 'amendments' 

PRH then wrote to my literary agent and told me they would only publish the book if a set of extraordinary demands were met: 100% copy approval, and submission of the manuscript to the British Ministry of Defence to take on board their 'amendments.' When I explored through three specific test cases how they envisaged their proposed act of writing to sources might work - e.g. what would happen if a source wanted to backtrack on information previously volunteered in an interview, or to change quotes etc - PRH immediately asked to see my literary agent in my absence, told him they were cancelling my contract, and that they would be asking me to pay back my advance and pay half their legal fees. They demanded £24,650 (plus VAT), and stated that was their precondition for returning the copyright to the book to me. 

Bravo Two Zero

Another factor that may have been at play is pressure from 'Andy McNab' - the pseudonym of a former British special forces (SAS) soldier who led an ill-fated patrol behind Iraqi lines in the first Gulf War and subsequently published two best-selling memoirs followed by a host of novels. I had interviewed both McNab and his literary agent Mark Lucas during the research for the book. Although they were originally marketed as 'incredible true stories', McNab's memoirs - Bravo Two Zero in particular, were subsequently revealed to include substantial fabrication. This is all in the public domain - the Wikipedia page for Bravo Two Zero describes the book as a novel and 'partly fictional.' McNab's books inspired countless young men to join the army - myself included. Many of these individuals were later sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them are now dead. 

When during fact-checking I had raised the issues of the factual veracity of McNab's work - and the question of whether the books were ghostwritten - with McNab and Lucas the latter had responded furiously. McNab's books are published by another imprint of Penguin Random House and - as huge bestsellers - are a lucrative commercial property for the publishing house. After that my editor had made me soft-pedal reporting on McNab, sending drafts of the text regarding them to Lucas for comment. In this process Lucas again responded angrily and notably contradicted a number of points he had said earlier on tape. I said to my editor that I was willing to make some changes to the language used, but I was not prepared to remove the fundamental point about the fictionalised nature of these memoirs, given it was all already in the public domain. Prior to their demands for copy approval and MoD submission, McNab and Lucas had pressured my editor to be 'removed' from my book. Again, I have emails to prove this. 

Finally - while I have no proof of this - it is possible that PRH are under wider pressure from the British government or military. There is no doubt my reporting stirred considerable disquiet in the army, and that senior figures in the defence establishment were profoundly worried about the book. I was also directed by the publishers, before the legal review process was complete, to send out PDF proofs of the book to a range of individuals to solicit endorsements. It is therefore highly probable that a copy of the text is already lying on a desk in the British Ministry of Defence. 

Under pressure

Q: You interviewed dozens of people whilst researching the book. Would you regard them as whistleblowers?

A: All in all I conducted some 260 interviews (the exact number is slightly hard to give, as in some interviews multiple individuals were present). Some clearly were motivated by wanting to expose events that they felt were wrong, or had been badly handled. But many of them just spoke about their service, and what it had meant to them. I was also keen from the start to make this a book about the Army that people with no prior interest in the military would read; so I did not just interview British soldiers. I spoke to their families - wives and children, to the politicians who commanded them, to local Iraqis who interacted with them, to coalition allies, and journalists who were embedded with the soldiers. As with any reporting activity like this I had to cross-check details and multiple, often contradictory, accounts. Going back to sources, checking and fact-checking, was an involved and complicated and often difficult process. I knew how to do this from working in magazine journalism but it was demanding to have to expand it to a much longer format. 

Q: What did they reveal that the British Army would prefer to keep quiet?

The best analogy here is that of an open secret, which is an apt trope for our times - think about the way that Harvey Weinstein's actions were common knowledge in Hollywood, but unspoken about more widely before the #MeToo movement. Another example: it is widely known that no-one has really been held to account for the actions that led to the 2008 financial crisis, but just accepted. In the same way it is widely acknowledged - both internally within the military and externally - that in the post-9/11 campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British military failed to achieve its stated objectives. It is also widely known that there has been no real accountability - while junior individuals have faced a whole host of novel, and in some cases vexatious probes into their behaviour - no senior commander has been sanctioned for this failure.

State of denial

The Army as an institution remains in a state of denial about the true nature of these campaigns. That's really bad for the Army; it makes learning lessons very difficult. This book took that well-known but vague sense of failure and drilled into the individual actions that led to it, and in doing so it stirred up fury. It also examined numerous other elements of military life that have always existed - bullying, prostitution, race relations, the role of social class in the British Army, the often difficult experiences of female soldiers - and brought them into the light. This is undoubtedly uncomfortable reading. But it is important these issues are discussed. As I stated to the Guardian; if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. 

It also leads to the next point. The Army was an institution that meant a lot to me. Although this may seem quite hard to believe in the current situation, I fundamentally cared about it. I felt that this all needed to be discussed, and discussed properly. 

'The best little Army in the world'? 

Q: Please describe your own experiences as a young recruit in the Army: 

A: I spent nine months in the army in 2003-4 on the Gap Year Commission programme, which took a highly selected cadre of school leavers, put them through a very condensed course at the officer training academy at Sandhurst, and then gave them a taste of life in the field army - though without deploying them on operations. My military experiences were limited, and the book makes this clear. Beyond the brief foreword and afterword there is no first person in the book. However, the experience did mean that I had something of an understanding of the culture of the army - I "spoke fluent army, but was not of the army," as one individual who endorsed the book proposal said. I had also sensed its self-image at that time. It can be difficult to believe now, but in 2003 the British Army was coming off a 20-year-run of successes; the Falklands, the First Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone. It is hard to exaggerate the sense of self-confidence the institution had, the notion that it was 'the best little army in the world,' and how much of this was built in binary opposition to the American military, who were perceived as plodding and foolish. Sixteen years on, post-Iraq and Afghanistan, those views seem incredibly hubristic and chauvinistic. But that was that Army then. Also what really struck me as I conducted the research for the book was that the Army I knew as a teenager apparently deified, above all other human and military virtues, the notion of command accountability. That meant that that you carried the can for what happened to the troops under your command - good and bad. Yet, as I reported this book I found the opposite had taken place – no-one at a senior level had been held to account at all for what had happened. I found that extraordinary, baffling, and ultimately, outrageous. 

Q: How has this long-running controversy affected you in your career and your personal life?

A: It's been extremely stressful. When PRH made their demands in January my primary feeling was absolute bafflement. My working assumption throughout the project had been that the publisher would act with the same level of editorial resolve as the numerous news organisations I have written for. They include the Guardian, Economist, New York Times, Bloomberg and Reuters. I now realise that view was somewhat naive - book publishers are not journalists; they are unused to handling controversy on a daily basis in the way that news organisations are, and they don't necessarily have the resources on hand to help or the experience to see through such situations. The very fact that they thought copy approval and censorship was a sensible approach in this situation indicates a fundamentally different set of DNA. 

I also felt angry, and betrayed, and obviously I questioned and scrutinised my own actions. This was my first book and no doubt if I was doing it again there are things I would have done differently. But I fundamentally acted according to the journalistic principles I had been taught and worked with my whole career, and they violated all of them. Yet I have also been profoundly touched by the support I have received - from NGOs like the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and also from other journalistic peers and friends. Part of what has happened here - and why the publisher is now in a somewhat exposed position - is that their actions broke a code, the fundaments of journalistic practice - that they perhaps did not really know existed. And they will have to carry that now. 

A matter of media freedom

Q. The media freedom community has rallied to your defence by writing to the publishers and later by publicising the case in the Guardian and Observer. What should be the next steps in the campaign?

A: My agent, myself and the NGOs involved took every step to resolve this matter internally and with no public discussion. We submitted extensive reporting documentation to my editor; the NGOs wrote in private to PRH. None of that changed the publisher's position. The rationale for finally making the matter public was to have a third party - the Guardian and other media - who was not myself or my agent, who are obviously both partial, lay out the facts of the case. I would be delighted if this pressure caused PRH to change their mind and publish the book, but I believe the chances of that are slim. Too many people at the firm are implicated in the decisions that led to this situation for them to change their mind easily. And under pressure individuals and institutions tend to become more, rather than less, entrenched. Another publisher is therefore the likely preferred option for the book now. Since the Guardian story was published my agent has already received expressions of interest from a number of editors elsewhere, and he will be talking more widely to the book trade in due course. 

In support of Simon Akam’s right to have the manuscript published in accordance with his original contract, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and seven other media freedom organisations wrote to Penguin Random House and later shared the joint letter with the Observer newspaper. 

ECPMF’s legal advisor Flutura Kusari says she is “concerned about the precedent that this case sets“.

Penguin Random House has yet to respond to ECPMF’s request for a response to the allegation that they have censored the book.