Hostage negotiator gives Kidnap and Ransom a reality check

A hostage negotiator talks exclusively to the Guardian about how he helped series producer and actor Trevor Eve convey the everyday brutality of dealing with kidnappers

When actor and producer Trevor Eve wanted to give his ITV1 drama Kidnap and Ransom authenticity he tracked down one of the most successful hostage negotiators in the business. Kidnapping is on the increase: British victims include Rachel and Paul Chandler, who were held by Somali pirates; last year David Tebbutt was killed in Kenya and his wife Judith taken hostage. This week it was reported that the UK and other EU nations have been considering air strikes against Somali pirates and insurgents.

As the negotiator – talking for the first time to the press – says, he has seen brutal things that are “taxing on your soul”. He describes kidnapping as a form of mental torture. “All the time the hostage is thinking: ‘Am I going to live today?’. If something goes or is going wrong, the easiest thing to do is for the kidnapper to kill the hostage and leg it.”

And yet from the point of view of the hostage-taker, a kidnap is almost a financial transaction. “To them it is as though they are selling a house – they have a figure they need to achieve. And what you want to achieve is the safe return of the hostage. I have to work out those parameters,” says the negotiator.

To protect his safety, I cannot reveal the negotiator’s name or the high-profile cases he has worked on here. So how did Eve track his adviser down? “Somehow they found me and came to my office. For some reason Trevor Eve thought I was just what they were looking for,” says the negotiator. “I said I would help him so there would not be any mythology or false impression about the realities of the horror of kidnapping.”

The show returns tonight, with Eve starring as negotiator Dominic King. The second series has a more complex plot, revolving around a tourist bus being taken hostage in India. Kidnap and Ransom writer Michael Crompton said he wanted to make sure the drama wasn’t “like those Hollywood films where there are standoffs and guns. I wanted to look at the psychology and give it a sense of veracity.”

For the negotiator that meant explaining how certain scenarios would be likely to unfold. “For example, how would the Kashmiri work with the Indians, how would the protocols and dynamics play out in a high-pressure environment? What would happen to a cabinet member who suddenly found himself in a position whereby they had a conflict between their personal life and British policy?” he explains.

The negotiator was also at pains to make sure the show didn’t glamourise kidnapping. “He was cold and hard about the [kidnappers] but he is aware of the contradiction that his profession could be seen in some ways as encouraging kidnappers,” says Crompton.

For his part, the negotiator says that Eve’s character manages to draw out the dynamics around the characters and the families involved. “The only people in charge are the hostage takers and they know it. They know they’ve got this incredible amount of power. But it is also a very stressful situation for the hostage takers. You have to have an ability to understand who you are dealing with.”

Keeping a hostage alive can be “hard fucking work,” the negotiator explains. “You’ve got to hold onto the hostage and keep them alive. You’ve got to keep them safe and not get caught … You carry on like this for ages. Professional groups in the Middle East have got some pretty sophisticated ways of keeping them safe.”

Eve thought that dealing with kidnappers would involve lots of electronic trickery and tracking. But in fact the negotiator says he spends a lot of time monitoring his phone and using more human skills and emotional intelligence. “You have to get your head around a culture and understand the expectations for that person in his own community – what is going to bring about an honourable cessation of violence.”

He adds, matter of factly: “There are clearly some horrendously brutal things you have to deal with.”

He recounts a claim about Hezbollah kidnapping a Russian: the Russian security service’s response was to find one of the kidnap-gang relatives, cut off his penis and send it to the kidnappers. “Unsurprisingly they got the hostage back. Britain deals with things in a different way. I can’t see the foreign secretary saying, ‘Pass me the knife’.”

The most dangerous aspect of his work, the negotiator says, is talking face-to-face with the kidnapper. “You are putting yourself at considerable risk. In order to do that you have to have a lot of trust. Afterwards, you either go to the gym or you go and get pissed.”

He pauses and adds wearily: “You can get quite tired of this – it’s the most invidious crime – and because of the horrors you come across. When young people are taken hostage sometimes relatives in their 70s say ‘Take me instead; I have lived my life.’ You don’t have to put yourself in their position to realise how incredibly powerful terror is.”

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from Tara Conlan


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