by Karl Wilson
As I watched live coverage of the hostage taking in Manila on television last Monday (August 23) my mind wandered back to another hostage drama in London 30 years ago when I was based there as a correspondent for the newspaper, The Australian. On Wednesday 30 April 1980, the BBC interrupted its morning broadcasting with a news flash that “terrorists had seized the Iranian embassy” in Prince’s Gate, South Kensington, just across the road from Hyde Park.
When I, along with the rest of the media army, arrived at the scene, police had blocked off Kensington Road (in front of the embassy), pushed sightseers well away, and set up an area to brief the media.
The information was sketchy at best and my bureau colleagues were getting more from the BBC and ITN television news coverage than their man on the ground. At the same time they were working the phones (no mobiles or computers then) calling contacts, trying to piece together the story.
Six armed men from southern Iran surprised the unarmed policeman on duty outside the embassy, housed in an old Georgian building, locked the door and took the 25 people inside hostage. Most of them were Iranian diplomats but there were also two BBC journalists collecting their visas.
The terrorists claimed to represent a group calling itself the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan, and were protesting oppression by the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini of their region of Iran, the predominantly ethnically Arab province of oil-rich Khuzestan.
They forced the BBC journalists to telex a list of their demands to the outside world – independence for their homeland and the release of political prisoners. They also demanded that Arab diplomats be brought in to help in the negotiations.
For journalists and camera crews, the lack of action was frustrating but we obeyed police instructions to stay within a restricted area although some moved across the road to the park overlooking the embassy for a better vantage point.
As all this was taking place, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw met with the various heads of security and the military to resolve the situation. The British government had already established a group known as COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room) headed by the Home Secretary to handle such events. Britain had been fighting an internal conflict with the Irish Republican Army since the early 1970s so they were equipped to manage these situations.
The country’s elite Special Air Service was put on standby as negotiations with the hostage takers moved into the evening. Journalists who had been camped out started operating in shifts. Some just stayed in their cars and waited as police negotiators – real negotiators who had been trained in the psychology of men and women who take hostages – talked with the group’s leader who was the only one who could speak English. The police wanted to avoid bloodshed and began leaning towards their demands. It was a “softly, softly approach” as the SAS began their operation – blue prints of the building were obtained, a mock up of the embassy was organized so a small group of SAS men could infiltrate the building. The caretaker of the building was found and he was taken to the SAS base just outside of London and asked to give a floor by floor, room by room account of the building. The country’s domestic spy service MI5 managed to drill holes through walls where fiber-optics devices could be placed to see what was happening and listening devices were lowered down the chimneys.
Most of this came out later but it shows just how prepared the British were. How could MI5 drill without being heard? Good question- the government arranged that aircraft be allowed to fly over the area at lower levels than normal to land at Heathrow while a British Gas team (MI5) worked nearby using jackhammers) to dig up a section of the pavement.
According to accounts that came out later, one serious problem was that the post office couldn’t find the phone lines to cut the gunmen off from the outside world. As the crisis moved into its second day the gunmen managed to talk to the media and even the Iranian foreign minister – maximizing publicity.
By the end of the second day the lines were cut denying them any more media exposure.
The siege dragged on for six whole days from Wednesday to Monday, May 5.
On May 5 the media got the story it had been waiting for… helicopters flew in low across London as a small group of less than a dozen SAS men came down ropes on to the roof of the embassy. Some abseiled down the back of the building while others came down the front. There were dramatic shots of one SAS soldier swinging in through glass doors on the second floor.
Stun grenades were thrown in, the SAS moved quickly through the building killing five of the gunmen – one escaped by hiding. The SAS knew exactly where each of the gunmen was. In the minutes it took to secure the building the SAS were gone and the local police moved in. None of the hostages were harmed and the BBC guy got the best scoop of his life.
There was no mucking around. No city mayor or local politicians were involved. The media covered the story … the media was not the story.
Every aspect of the operation worked. There was a chain of command and it was adhered to rigorously. There were no police playing to the media … their jobs were worth more than that.
A year later I covered riots in Brixton, Southall, Toxteth, Mosside and Bristol. These did not involve the SAS but each operation involved a chain of command that was strictly followed. District police commanders, always liaising with the Home Secretary, were responsible for their operations. The media, for its part, was told to “stay behind the line;” any attempt to cross it meant possible arrest for obstructing police work. There were briefings by the police commander at the scene and there were off the record briefings. The Home Secretary briefed the media and journalists did their own digging.
Karl Wilson is a faculty member of the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches Media Law and International Reporting. Karl was formerly the Manila bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.
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