After beating four other publishing houses in an auction, William Heinemann was in no doubt that The Changing of the Guard would more than reward the five-figure advance it paid to its author, Simon Akam.
The publisher boasted that the 182,000-word book examining the evolution of the British Army after 9/11 would be “an explosive, intimate authoritative account … based on exclusive interviews, rigorous research and on-the-ground reporting”.
Akam seemed the perfect writer for the job. He had spent a gap year with the army as a teenager and was a promising journalist – he had studied at Columbia Journalism School in New York on a Fulbright scholarship and has written for Reuters, the New York Times, the Economist and Newsweek, among others.
But six months on from its scheduled publication, The Changing of the Guard is now a ghost book. References to it can be found via Google but it has not been published, due to an extraordinary legal row that has sucked in SAS veteran Andy McNab, the Ministry of Defence, a prestigious war-studies centre and a number of anti-censorship organisations.
In the three years Akam spent writing and researching the book he interviewed 260 people, in a bid to understand how the army had changed over the last couple of decades, and in particular what it had learned from two recent conflicts.
“I wanted to know what had become of the army I briefly knew as an 18-year-old,” he explained. “I knew that Iraq and Afghanistan had gone badly. As I worked, I found that there had been no real high-level accountability internally within the military for the failure of these campaigns.”
But the research was to prove a formidable challenge. “To write narrative prose about events I had not witnessed and which took place up to 18 years ago, it was necessary to cross-reference multiple accounts that were often contradictory and which, given the unfavourable outcomes of the wars that form the subject of the book, often consisted of a mutual exercise in sources blaming each other,” Akam said.
When he returned to sources who had been interviewed on the record, some revoked their consent and others changed position. “This is a common occurrence in this kind of reporting,” Akam said. “Common enough that it has a name – source remorse.”
Penguin Random House (PRH), owner of William Heinemann, told Akam that there was a “quite unprecedented level of withdrawal of support and co-operation for the book from multiple sources” and halted the March publication.
The move prompted eight organisations, including the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship and the National Union of Journalists, to accuse it of “censoring information of vital interest to the public”.
In a letter to PRH, sent in May and now shared with the Observer, the organisations claim that William Heinemann executives told Akam’s literary agent that they “would only publish the book if Akam gave full copy approval to everyone mentioned in it, with every named individual signing off in writing what was said about them, and additionally demanded the submission of the manuscript to the British Ministry of Defence and for Akam to take on board any MoD amendments.”
The publisher’s lawyers justified their position by invoking data protection and privacy laws. The ECPMF said it was “highly concerned about the precedent such action establishes”.
Akam himself was left aghast at PRH’s proposals. “It is the equivalent of asking an author writing about Goldman Sachs to submit the text to the investment bank for their edits,” he said.
PRH said: “As we made clear in our response of May 2019 to the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, this is a decision we were obliged to take as a responsible publisher and we do not see this as a freedom of expression issue. Among other reasons, it was our view that the author’s due diligence did not meet the standards of balance and accuracy expected of responsible publishers, authors and journalists. The suggestion therefore that we are censoring information of vital interest to the public is misconceived and the suggestion that we required the author to give copy approval to everyone in the book is denied.
“Penguin Random House is committed to enabling and defending freedom of expression and editorial independence; that commitment depends on responsible publishing processes and standards.”
One key organisation that flagged concerns was the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford which Akam had attended on a visiting fellowship.
In an email sent to PRH in January, the centre’s director, Dr Robert Johnson, said he had been contacted by “numerous” individuals approached for the book, including two retired generals and a serving colonel, who were unhappy with what Akam had written, believing it to be “unjust” and “untruthful”. Johnson warned PRH that it would be sued if publication of Akam’s book went ahead.
Akam, who insists the individuals’ views were clearly represented in the text and that none had threatened to sue, believes it was Johnson’s intervention that led to PRH demanding he submit his manuscript to the MoD for review.
Johnson, whose biography states that he “advises and delivers direct support to government and armed forces in defence and security matters”, told the Observer: “A number of people have given their time and energy to support Mr Akam, including military personnel offering personal disclosures, but it seems he had betrayed people’s trust in order to write a piece of work which he feels is a devastating exposé of his subjects. There is a difference between investigative journalism and creating a story at someone’s expense for one’s own promotion.”
Andy McNab, the former SAS soldier who has written two highly successful memoirs and a series of novels, and his literary agent Mark Lucas, both interviewed by Akam, also raised concerns. A chapter of The Changing of the Guard explores how McNab’s books – which are published by another PRH imprint – had encouraged young men to join the army.
McNab’s most famous book, Bravo Two Zero, about an SAS unit deployed in Iraq in the first Gulf war, has been accused of fabrication, a charge he rejects, but something Akam wanted to explore in print.
“During fact-checking I went back to check details with both McNab and Lucas,” said Akam, who alleges that after Lucas responded “angrily” to what he had written, PRH requested that he send the two men draft texts so that they could comment on its factual accuracy.
Lucas told the Observer that he was far from angry, but admitted to feeling disappointed with the approach Akam had taken. A book he thought was going to explore how Bravo Two Zero – which itself was subject to extensive MoD reviews – had broken the mould of soldier memoirs and instead focused on old criticisms that, he said, offered nothing new.
“My overall response is disappointment,” Lucas said. “I would not have given him so much of my time if I had realised he was just going to end up producing something of such little insight.”
Akam believes that the brouhaha surrounding his book bolsters its central thesis: that Britain’s armed forces failed to achieve their objectives in their post-9/11 campaigns and set out to quash discussion of what went wrong.
“I am sure this book will be uncomfortable reading for a number of those involved in the Iraq and Afghan wars. I am also convinced that its publication lies wholly in the long-term interests of both the British army and the British nation state. If we do not learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it.”