HUNT BALLS: A strange Odyssey of fibs, cronyism, and desecrating war graves

huntvic“Victory is ours!”

In a classic saga of 3-D bollocks, three senior Conservatives in Surrey and a rapacious US Salvage Company have combined to engineer the desecration of an historic war-grave, HMS Victory. Admiral Sir John Balchen went down with his ship. As the descendants of Sir John suggest, this is the usual tale of cronyism and incompetence in senior government circles. And guess what, our old chum Jeremy Does-no-Wrong Hunt is involved. The Slog investigates another example of deception, distortion, and distraction.

Lord Lingfield, on introducing the US salvage company Odyssey to the media last year, seemed happy to give the impression that he is a descendant of Admiral Sir John Balchen, who went down with HMS Victory in 1744. This is not true – although most of the MSM have stated it as a fact. One has to assume that this is what the salvagers wanted them to do, as they introduced his Lordship as “a direct descendant of Balchen”. In fact, before he was Lingfielded, Lord L was plain Robert Balchin, not Balchen. He is a senior Conservative politician, and the recognised architect of the Tory Party’s education policy. He was elevated by David Cameron soon after the Coalition began its merry pavanne in 2010.

Behind the facade, Lingfield is a privatisation fanatic. In March 2012, he delivered the interim report of his review into professionalism in further education, commissioned by the Department for Business and Skills. It recommended deregulation of the process of running and scoping ‘learning’,  and the abolition of the Institute for Learning (IfL). Jeremy Hunt’s company Hotcourses works, of course, in this sector of education. His company was voted ‘a top employer’ by the Murdoch press. Hold both those thoughts, and log this third one for luck: as will become apparent, his Lordship Lingfield is jolly keen on giving private business a free hand.

There are thought to be the remains of over 400 men on the Victory. For many years it has been accepted as an important war grave, but of late sentiment has changed at the Ministry of Defence run by ambitious Tory Minister Philip Hammond. This may be something to do with their being other ‘treasure ship’ salavage in the pipeline….as this email released from 2011 under the FOI Act shows:

‘Subject: FW: Letter from Attachments: Letter to for MoD.pdf

‘Thanks for this. The letter is actually quite timely – we’ve always intended to use the way ahead being developed for HMS VICTORY (1744) as a template for the management of this wreck (which pretty much everyone believes to be that of HMS GLOUCESTER (1682)), and we (MOD and DCMS) are now on the point of publishing on the DCMS website the report into the public consultation on the management of the former. I suggest therefore that we await the imminent publication of the report and then direct [name removed] to its recommendations, after which it would probably be useful to meet with them (preferably k!) to discuss the way ahead.’

I’ve no idea who ‘k’ is – but it seems likely that ‘they’ are Odyssey. The American salvager Odyssey is pretty good at hype. They have fuelled expectations of a large amount of bullion on board – always good for the share price, is yer booty – but the Admiral Sir John Balchen Descendants Society (ASJBDS) dismisses this as tosh:

‘Our researches into the meticulous Royal Navy records of the period, have shown no such evidence. Nor do our extensive family records, which date far beyond 1744, make any such assertion. Given that the sums speculated at were vast, and in which Admiral Balchen would have been entitled to a 2% commission for landing the bullion safely, we think there would be some family or Royal Navy record of this.’

One is nevertheless left wondering whether the prospect of gold bullion had led some of the pirates who inhabit Westminster these days to think salvaging the Victory might be a fine wheeze Jim Lad, hah-haarrgh, we be sailin’ on the noon scam. But what Odyssey is rather less keen to talk about is that the ship is a massive war grave. And what they’re even less happy to admit is that they don’t have the skills to deal with that kind of job.

I sense a bit of G4S coming on here.

It’s not competence that most worries the real descendants of Admiral Balchen. Richard Temple West was expressing the consensus of opinion amongst the descendants of Admiral Balchen when he wrote to The Times last summer to say ‘“Admiral Balchen is my direct ancestor and I am deeply concerned about the fate of his war grave……..that scant regard is being taken for the descendants of the crew. This is after all a grave…….any investigation of the site must be painstakingly guided by independent experts with no financial interest and carried out for the benefit of our nation………Most importantly of all, my ancestor’s name must not be used by advertising men to pretend that the profit-seeking activities of a treasure-hunting company are archaeology done in the public interest”.

Unfortunately, the Murdoch Times is batting for the other side….as you might expect, given that Jeremy Hunt is rather highly thought of inside Newscorp. It was the the Sunday Times that alleged “blunders” by English Heritage in releasing the supposed coordinates of the HMS Victory wreck site, enabling unscrupulous marine salvours to “steal” cannons from the site. Again, there is no evidence to support the claim. Then on January 22nd 2012, the Sunday Times ran another story saying Odyssey was “the salvour in possession” of the site.

The Victory site was indeed ‘gifted’ by the Ministry of Defence to the Maritime Heritage Foundation. It thus left the MoD at that time, and came under aegis of the Minster for Media, Culture & Sport, Jeremy Hunt. Who actually encouraged the gifting thing is a moot point. Sources at the MoD say in private that they didn’t have much say in it. Either way, the chap in charge of the MHF is…..Lord Lingfield. My my my.

Odyssey then promptly started issuing press releases all over the place saying that the site was being damaged by bounty hunters and so they’d have to get on with it, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say n’more. Lord Lingfield himself admitted in an e-mail to the Ministry of Defence ( also released under the FOI Act) that Odyssey was always “in a tearing hurry.”

Within weeks, the New York Times also ran a piece saying Odyssey had become the Government’s “salvour of choice”. I can’t find any written evidence of that. Indeed, it is a sign of the company’s probity in such matters that just days before, the US Courts forced Odyssey to return 17 tons of silver coins illegally removed from the Spanish Frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. But that’s life: down and snake, and then up a ladder. And the start-point of this ladder seems to involve South West Surrey rather a lot.

So let’s sum up the connections here….and decide whether they add up to fortuitous coincidence, or cronyist corruption.

Lord Lingfield, being a senior Conservative politician with a convenient surname, has a political power base in South West Surrey, having served as a Member of the Surrey County Council. This is the same county which contains the constituencies of Jeremy Hunt, [South West Surrey] then Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, from 12 May 2010 to 4 September 2012, the skipper in charge of the HMS Victory 1744 consultation at that time. The current Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond  – Runnymede and Weybridge, which is also in Surrey – became the Secretary of State for Defence on 14 October 2011. His Ministry gifted the HMS Victory to the Maritime Heritage Foundation via Hunt’s CM&S ministry. And last year, the satirical investigative magazine Private Eye obtained confirmation of the fact that CM&S Secretary Jeremy Hunt met Lord Lingfield at least once “on the constituency net” in the Summer of 2010 during the HMS Victory consultation period on  from Mar 2010 to July 2011. Sources have also assured news media that no other interested parties were offered meetings.

It all looks very neat, doesn’t it? You decide.

There will be more on this in due course.

If you enjoyed this, there is every chance you’ll also enjoy the tale of Bristow Helicopters