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Britain's Gordon Brown lambasted over sloppy condolence note

The prime minister, whose penmanship is poor, hand writes notes to the families of slain British soldiers. When he misspells a grieving mother's name, an uproar and repeated apologies follow.

November 10, 2009|By Henry Chu

Reporting from London — Let down by his own bad handwriting, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown found himself apologizing yet again today to a woman whose name he misspelled in a condolence letter over the death of her son in Afghanistan.

The epistolary faux pas and the ensuing uproar have nearly swamped the national debate here over the Afghan conflict since news of Brown's mistake emerged on Monday. Questioned repeatedly about it at a news conference today, the British leader said he was sorry for any offense caused to the grieving mother but used the occasion to restate the importance of Britain's commitment to a war that seems to be losing public support by the day.

Just hours after Brown spoke, the bodies of six more soldiers killed in Afghanistan arrived back on British soil, including five men who were shot last week by a rogue Afghan police officer. The cortege through the small English town of Wootten Bassett was attended by hundreds of people in what has become a national ritual of public mourning for those fallen in battle.

After the U.S., Britain has the most troops in Afghanistan -- about 9,000, most of them based in the violent south. Although politicians of all stripes have pledged support for keeping soldiers there, polls show that a majority of Britons now back a complete military pullout either immediately or within a year.

Brown's problems in shoring up support for the war have been compounded by the dust-up over his condolence letter to Jacqui Janes, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in early October.

The missive, in Brown's untidy scrawl, was addressed to "Mrs. James." Her son Jamie's name also appeared to be misspelled in the body of the letter. Janes gave the letter to the Sun tabloid, which published it Monday under the headline "Bloody shameful."

Fuel was added to the fire when Brown telephoned Janes late Sunday to apologize for causing any offense. During the call, which Janes recorded and also turned over to the Sun, Brown sounded flustered as the conversation morphed into an extraordinary dressing-down of the prime minister by Janes over an alleged lack of military equipment in Afghanistan.

"I know every injury that my child sustained that day. I know that my son could have survived, that my son bled to death," Janes told Brown in steely tones. "How would you like it if one of your children, God forbid, went to a war doing something that he thought . . . was helping protect his queen and country, and because of a lack -- lack -- of helicopters, lack of equipment, your child bled to death?"

The Sun, which has already declared its support for the opposition Conservative Party in the general election to be held by next June, accused Brown of further insensitivity and of provoking a fight with a bereaved mother.

Other commentators, however, have put Brown's mistake down to his self-acknowledged poor penmanship and poor eyesight (he is blind in one eye). They also note that, unlike other national leaders, he takes the time to send handwritten letters of condolence.

"I think very carefully [about] what I say, and I wanted to assure her that the words that I was using, even if she had found them difficult to read, which I understand from my writing, were sincerely meant," Brown said at his news conference today. "The last thing on my mind was to cause any offense to Jacqui Janes."

He said he wanted to assure her that "over time, comfort comes from understanding that your son played an important role in the security of your country."

Interviewed later by the BBC, Janes said she now accepted Brown's apology.

"He didn't sound apologetic in the phone call," she said. "Today he looked sincere. He looked humbled."

She denied being recruited or used by the Sun to press a political agenda.

"Anybody that knows me will know that there is no way that I can be manipulated by anybody. I chose the Sun purely because the Sun [is] pro-army. It has nothing to do with politics at all."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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