Doesn’t it warm your heart to know that poor Simon Mann, the Old Etonian former soldier, feels that his release after ‘five and a half tough years in prison’ is the best Christmas present he’ll have.
Mann, financed by a motley crew of Equatorial Guinean exiles, oil magnates, financiers and the dim son of a former British Prime Minister, led a group of mercenaries planning to overthrow the government of President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. Despite some protestations that they were trying to bring democracy to the country, they were just involved in regime change for financial gain.
This is what makes it so hard to stomach some of the terrible coverage of his release and its context in the British media. The most indigestible gobbets have come from the BBC – on the ten o’clock news on the night of Mann’s release and on its website.
A report by the normally cautious and reliable Frank Gardner presented an image of a sadly wronged man being freed from imprisonment – giving the impression that somehow he was the victim of injustice.
In analysis of Mann’s background on the BBC News website on 3rd November, he talked of Mann’s background at Eton and in the Scots Guards, his lineage as the son of a former England cricket captain and his role in ‘private security’, but somehow missed out the fact that he and his other former military accomplices were mercenaries willing to kill for money at the bidding of rich businessmen who could make a fast buck by overthrowing a recognised government.
In much of the BBC coverage there was scant reference to the morality or even illegality of what Mann was trying to do, but lots of overtones that it was an unacceptable proposition that an Old Etonian should be locked up in an African jail. Some reports talked of ‘Boy’s Own adventure’ in describing the plot.
There seemed little recognition of the fact that Mann was a mercenary – a word the BBC in particular seemed to want to avoid using – who was being paid to overthrow a government and, presumably, to kill people in the process.
When he was jailed (first in Zimbabwe on illegal arms charges and then in Equatorial Guinea for plotting the coup), Mann never denied his role, though he always said he was an accomplice rather than the architect of the plan. But somehow the nature of what he admits he was intending to do and the whole issue of what being a mercenary entails has escaped much of the British media in their coverage.
British newspapers gave wide coverage to Mann’s release stressing his Old Etonian and SAS background. But for once, what distinguished their coverage from the BBC’s was that some of the papers weren’t afraid to call Mann what he is – a mercenary.
While the BBC seemed desperate to avoid the word and its clearly unsavoury connotations, The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and Guardian all used the word repeatedly. The Telegraph, no great lover of African leaders and a paper which generally falls smartly into line with the British army view of the world, was pretty clear in its analysis of what Mann had been up to; describing him as a mercenary and ‘celebrity coup-plotter’ (will this be the title of a new game show?) it said: Mann and others have at times tried to justify their escapade in Equatorial Guinea by saying that they hoped to bring democracy to a country known for repression and government brutality. Such claims should be ignored: the plot was a matter of business, best understood as a part of a broad scramble by outsiders for Africa’s bountiful natural resources.
This was a breath of fresh air after the stiflingly wishy-washy, ‘Brit comes home from African nightmare’ feel of the BBC’s reporting. But what was lacking from most of the British media coverage was any analysis or critique of the enduring role of and public fascination with mercenaries. Now often disguised under the sobriquet ‘private security Companies’, mercenaries are perhaps more active than ever in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
By calling them security companies the media buy into the idea that somehow they are more legitimate than old-fashioned mercenaries and are part of the global economic pattern of privatisation, rather than the continuation of the bad old ways of mercenaries like Mike Hoare and Bob Denard. They do just the same violent and irresponsible things in far way countries, but under a sanitised name and now with the more open connivance (at least in Iraq) of Western governments.
If an African or Middle Eastern government had paid mercenaries to try to overthrow a Western government, there would be uproar in the media and implicit support for a massive military response, as after 9/11.
But if an upper-class, former British officer is paid by oil interests to overthrow an African government then it’s a new scramble for Africa, boy’s own stuff, a jolly poor show if he gets caught and put in prison and an audible sigh of relief in the media when the poor chap is released. Double standards – surely not!
Keith Somerville worked for the BBC World Service and BBC College of Journalism for 28 years until 2008.