Maureen Campbell-White. Photo / Doug Sherring
The Oscar-winning movie Argo cut New Zealand out of the
1979 Iran hostage crisis credits.
Now, former New Zealand Embassy worker Maureen Campbell-White
is breaking 34 years of silence to set the record straight.
Controversy surrounded Ben Affleck's blockbuster movie about
six American fugitives hidden by the Canadian Ambassador and
spirited safely out of Iran by the CIA. According to the
movie, the British and New Zealand Embassies turned their
backs on the Americans.
This week NZ First leader Winston Peters moved a
Parliamentary motion formally expressing regret that Argo
misled the world.
Campbell-White, believed to be the last surviving staff
member from the New Zealand Embassy in Tehran during the
hostage crisis, told the Herald on Sunday that Kiwis were
instrumental in saving at least two American lives.
The weekend before militants stormed the US Embassy,
Campbell-White and other staff from the New Zealand, US and
UN compounds went camping in the Turkoman Steppes.
Tehran was a dangerous place with Mujahideen checkpoints
everywhere and frequent gunfire.
"You'd hear crowds coming down the road shouting, 'Allah hu
akbar' (Allah is great), and shooting their guns in the air,"
said Campbell-White, 71, of Auckland.
The camping trip was a welcome escape for the group -
including NZ Ambassador Chris Beeby, second secretary Richard
Sewell, cryptographer Margaret Hoggett, and Campbell-White's
then-husband Winston Prattley, who was head of the UN in
Iran, as well as four Americans.
"We started to drive back. We were all in Land Rovers and it
was about midnight when one of the American Land Rovers broke
The Kiwis tried but failed to fix the vehicle, and it was
decided to leave and return for it later.
"They piled into our Land Rover and we drove back into
"When we got to the house it was between 2am and 3am. We all
had to be off to work at 7am."
The Americans had unrolled their sleeping bags and dossed
down in Campbell-White's sitting room.
"When we got up in the morning, even before we had breakfast,
we heard there was something going on at the American
Embassy." They heard about the storming of the embassy via a
Prattley and Campbell-White, who was then in charge of
record-keeping at the embassy, drove to the New Zealand
compound and told officials of their four house guests.
Beeby then drove his Chevrolet Blazer to Campbell-White's
house and hid the four Americans under blankets in the back.
"We told them not to move and managed to bring them to the
New Zealand Embassy."
Two of the four men had decided to "go off and do their own
thing". She doesn't remember what happened to them.
The other two hid in the embassy's safe room, out of bounds
to the Iranian cleaner. "It had big Chubb doors because our
coded cable machine was in there."
Beeby got in touch with his close ally, the Canadian
Ambassador Ken Taylor and, several days later, drove the two
Americans to Taylor's residence.
She said the New Zealand sites were considered too risky to
harbour the Americans for long.
"We had to be very, very careful. Christopher didn't take
them to his residence because he had two cooks, cleaners, a
butler and gardeners. The New Zealand Embassy residence was a
big compound so there were lots of locals working there."
The mission to shelter the Americans was so top secret she
couldn't tell her husband what had happened to them - even as
she was smuggling food into the NZ Embassy for the fugitives.
"We were sworn to secrecy."
Campbell-White didn't see the two Americans again and doesn't
remember their names, but she is clear on one thing: Argo is
even more factually wrong than anyone realised.
"The acting might be good, the film might be good, but the
content is inaccurate. I just think it's a great pity because
that will probably go down in history as what happened."
Scottish-born Campbell-White and her family were evacuated
from Iran soon after.
She thinks Sewell and Beeby should receive posthumous awards.
She has lost touch with Margaret Hoggett.
This week, Peters told the Herald on Sunday he had seen the
film and it was "worse than erroneous".
"It's despicable to paint a courageous diplomat as failing to
help an ally nation. It is simply not tolerable."
He said Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade should release
any secret reports from the time about the incident.
- Kathryn Powley, Herald on Sunday