Picture the scene: it’s monday morning, the coffee is cooling, I’m blankly trolling around in a free-associating Google image search. For some reason a glimpsed headline suggests the name Andy McNab to me and I end up looking at a screenful of pixellated thumbnails of the celebrated SAS survivor.
In one corner I notice an undisguised head and shoulders shot – a bit of a shock as, famously, McNab guards his identity carefully: he’d won the Military Medal for service in Northern Ireland and later trained anti-Cartel forces in Colombia; so he’s got all sorts of understandable reasons to keep his head down.
Here was an odd-looking face – head shaved, strong neckline, glancing slightly ostentatiously at the camera, in what seemed to be a PR faceshot. A quick look at one of McNab’s books in WH Smiths showed that the neckline, chin and cheekbones on the web pic looked quite close to the only other undisguised pic of Andy, taken in 1977 in South Armagh.
Could this be the first undisguised pic of the famous Mr McNab? (Link checked on January 27, 2009, still there). It’s on a German-based PR flummery site that seems to be soliciting money for charity contacts. Why was the pic there? Was it just an innocent mistake by an inept webmaster? After all, in newsrooms all over Britain there are photos of the man himself before the pixels are layered over, and in edit suites there must be hours of video of him without his digital disguise in place. Must be easy for someone to pop the wrong pic in the queue to FTP to the webserver, I wondered.
Wanting to find out more, I popped off an email to McNab’s publisher, Bantam (an imprint of Random House). I asked if they knew about the site. I guess I also had bought into the mystique of McNab – if he really wants to keep Sinn Fein/IRA and the Cali Cartel off his tail he’d want to know about this, I thought.
A press assistant at Bantam gets back to me: “It is always good to know that people will comment when they see something that is not right. Fortunately in this case the gentleman pictured is not Andy McNab, nor does he look anything like him – so a potentially disastrous situation is actually quite amusing.”
Ok then, so it’s not McNab. In a way I’m relieved not to be mixed up in outing McNab: if I had, he’d possibly turn up on my doorstep with some of his former friends from Hereford to remonstrate… A contact in the intelligence community tells me that McNab’s real ID is well known ‘in the trade’ and his wishes to keep his head down are merely a great way to build his brand as an author. So there we’ll leave the real McNab.
But if it’s not him, then who is it? While our friendly Bantam press assistant might find it ‘quite amusing’, if McNab’s really got mobile units of trackers on his tail then surely the person misidentified in the picture is going to be pretty cheesed off to be woken one day looking up the barrel of a nine millimetre pistol.
Now, publishing law is one of first (and most worrying) bits of professional practice you learn about when doing your NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course. Misidentification by hacks can cause all sorts of distress and has resulted in some biggish payouts to unfortunate innocents.
Some days later, things move on. I find the not-McNab pic again, in another Google Image search. This time it’s got the name Robert Rigby underneath it. Rigby turns out to be the co-writer who pounds the keyboard while McNab yarns away about the years of gunsmoke and car chases.
OK – stand down the lawyers and bodyguards – this seems to me to be quite benign, with one big proviso: if I were Robert Rigby, I’d get onto that German webmaster and get the pic of him taken off the site asap. We don’t know how long the pic’s been up, misidentifying him as McNab, but search engine servers and spiders have been indexing this pic for months and the error, if left, will linger for a long time.
In online journalism, early action to correct legal errors is absolutely vital because of the danger of search engine caching of the legally unsound material. Once it’s out there in Google Image land, it’s in the wild.