‘A terrifying precedent’: author describes struggle to publish British army history

Simon Akam says Penguin Random House cancelled his book about the British army, The Changing of the Guard, and demanded back his advance after he refused to let the MoD vet it

In the summer of 2015, journalist Simon Akam was thrilled when Penguin Random House (PRH) imprint William Heinemann won a five-way auction to publish his book, The Changing of the Guard. It promised to be an “explosive, intimate, authoritative account of the British army”, with PRH likening Akam to George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Michael Herr.

Six years later, The Changing of the Guard was published – but not by PRH. It was released this February by independent press Scribe, after an extraordinary dispute between PRH and Akam resulted in the publisher dropping the book, spending a year chasing Akam for tens of thousands of pounds, and accusing him of not meeting “the standards of balance and accuracy expected of responsible publishers, authors and journalists”.

The Changing of the Guard is a study of the British army’s time in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is often critical of senior leadership, and details the army’s extensive efforts to shut down criticism directed at it. PRH agreed to pay Akam a £45,000 advance, and he received £20,000 of that between 2015 and 2018.

Now Scribe has published the book, Akam is speaking out to shine a light on what he calls “a terrifying precedent”, where a publisher could make exceptional demands of investigative journalists, including making writers submit their books to their sources for approval, effectively allowing them to edit themselves – and claim the writer has broken their contract if they refuse to do so.

“PRH said that the book was unpublishable and that I hadn’t delivered on my work,” Akam says. “But the book has been published, and there’s been no problem at all. There has been no threat of legal action. The book has been widely discussed, praised and damned, but it has stirred the debate – which it was meant to do. I delivered precisely the book that they told me to write, they described it on acquisition as ‘explosive’. And their cowardice has cost me £25,000 and put me through hell.”

Between 2013 and 2018, Akam interviewed 260 people for the book. With so many interviews, often recounting the same events, Akam often returned to his sources, the vast majority of whom had been interviewed on the record, to factcheck and offer them right of reply. In this process, a small number tried to revoke their consent to be quoted – a common occurance known as “source remorse”.

“If you’ve given an interview, you can’t subsequently stick your hand up and say ‘actually, I didn’t say any of that, take me out’. If anyone could just ring up a newspaper and say, ‘I don’t want to be written about’, journalism would not exist,” says Akam.

In early 2019, PRH was contacted by Dr Robert Johnson, director of the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford, which Akam had attended on a visiting fellowship. Johnson, who had seen an earlier version of Akam’s manuscript and provided feedback, told PRH that he expected “numerous” individuals whom Akam had approached would sue if the book was published. PRH then told Akam that there had been a “quite unprecedented level of withdrawal of support and co-operation for the book from multiple sources”.

PRH denies that Johnson influenced the decision, saying: “Contrary to Akam’s statements, his book was not cancelled as a result of any pressure from any third-party organisation or individual. The reality is that the author’s due diligence did not in our view meet the standards of balance and accuracy expected of responsible publishers, authors and journalists.”

The dispute between PRH and Akam was first reported in the Observer in August 2019, when PRH denied that they “required the author to give copy approval to everyone in the book”. But the Guardian has seen correspondence in which PRH tells Akam and his agent, Patrick Walsh of PEW Literary Agency, that the book would only be published if he got “written confirmation by email from each source that they have seen the text as it relates to them in final form and are happy for their names and information to be included”.

PRH also told Akam that he needed to remove any reference to individuals who did not want to be written about, citing data protection and privacy laws, from which journalism and literary works can claim exemption.

“It says something about the very pally nature of British publishing,” Akam says. “If this is how PRH thinks that nonfiction should be written, that the subject should be allowed to edit it and that everything should be agreed, that is very comfortable. But the people who lose out ultimately are those who read these books.”

Walsh adds: “The establishment was determined to dislike this book from the start. They just weren’t happy with the idea of someone looking too closely at their world. Simon was aware of it, but that’s why he is so careful. There was a sense that a decision had been reached tacitly to get rid of this book and then the reasons were found, rather than the other way around.”

PRH also demanded that the book be submitted to the Ministry of Defence for review, with Akam expected to take on all the MoD’s requested changes. From the outset, Akam had stipulated that he would not submit his book to the MoD, as he felt it was “pretty antithetical to the entire way that I’d been trained as a journalist” and PRH agreed.

“I would never have signed a contract with PRH if they demanded that I do that,” says Akam, who largely reported the book by speaking to individuals who had left the military.

If they are not serving personnel, authors are not required to submit books to the MoD, but can do so if they want to gain access to serving military personnel and agree to make any edits required of them. In 2011, the MoD paid £150,000 to buy and pulp the entire first print run of Dead Men Risen by journalist Toby Harnden, after it objected to details in the book that had escaped a four-month review process. In 2014, the MoD attempted to block publication of Mike Martin’s An Intimate War after commissioning him to write it; the book was highly critical of the British army’s conduct in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Martin, a captain in the Territorial Army, resigned, but the book was eventually published.

When Akam and Walsh disputed the new demands in March 2019, PRH cancelled Akam’s book. They asked Akam to repay the £20,000 he had received of his £45,000 advance, plus £4,650 for half of PRH’s legal fees.

Eight journalism organisations, coordinated by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and including Reporters Without Borders and the National Union of Journalists, accused PRH of “censoring information of vital interest to the public”. PRH rejected this, but asked Akam to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition to secure the rights to his book, which he refused to do. In order to regain his rights without signing an NDA, Akam agreed to pay PRH £20,000. The legal fees were then dropped.

Akam initially felt “very betrayed” and spoke about what had happened publicly. But PRH made clear they were monitoring what he was saying, a move he describes as “bullying”. “They had fiat power, they could do whatever they wanted. Finances were really tight, they knew that they were asking for money that I couldn’t afford. It was clearly an attempt to scare me. When I talked about it in public, they sent screeds. It would almost be funny, if it wasn’t grim to be in the middle of it.”

When Scribe agreed to publish The Changing of the Guard in 2020, only small changes, such as adding two pseudonyms, were made, but no substantial edits were imposed. Akam’s £10,000 advance from Scribe went towards paying back PRH, and he was still expected to pay another £10,000 by October 2021.

“By that calculation, I have been paid less than a quarter of my original fee for the book,” Akam says.

“This has been a very difficult position for me. I don’t want to spend my life engaged in a kind of revenge quest, I want to move on. Over the past two years, I’ve had to think quite hard about my mind and emotions in order to keep myself sane. But I think it is important that what happened is known, because I don’t think this should happen again.”

Sarah Braybrooke, Akam’s publisher at Scribe, confirmed Akam’s account and said she was contacted by the MoD about the book but declined to send it on. “I found them very respectful. Obviously, I imagine that they would have liked it to be sent, but they didn’t bully us.”

At the start of 2021, Heinemann was combined with another PRH imprint to form Hutchinson Heinemann, with an entirely different team. While the Guardian was researching this story, Hutchinson Heinemann’s new managing director, Venetia Butterfield said the publisher would waive the final £10,000 repayment.

But Akam says he is still out at least £25,000 after five years work. “If this wasn’t my fault, they broke their contract. It comes back to the simplest thing – the book has been published, and there has been no problem,” he said.

“Even dropping their demand for the final £10,000, I have received less than half of what I was told I was going to get for this book. I would like them to pay me in full for the work that I’d done and apologise. An apology would mean a lot to me. Because they put me through absolute hell.”

In a statement, PRH said: “PRH took the decision to cancel the contract to publish The Changing of the Guard, a history of the modern British army, in March 2019. We have a proud history of defending free speech and we are not afraid to publish hard-hitting books on controversial topics. However, as a responsible publisher, we are committed to working carefully with authors to check the accuracy and defensibility of contentious allegations which may give rise to real litigation risks. This is not a step which we have taken lightly.

“Each book is different and some will carry higher risks than others; this is acceptable so long as the book has been through a robust due diligence process. Unfortunately, in this case, we were not sufficiently confident that the responses to challenges raised during clearance met the necessary standards to proceed to publication.

“We would not have made this matter public if the author had not chosen to do so.”

Contributor

Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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