Friday, December 21, 2012

Defence news is simply too easy to ignore

Joel Shenton, former editor of, talks about the problem of how insufficient and inadequate press coverage of matters of national defence contributes to the low weight that "the first duty of government" has in policy making.

In early 2011, I asked a Ministry of Defence press officer in main building what their job involved, bearing in mind there had been months, maybe even years, of bad news  for defence by this point and surely it was a press officer’s remit to make the picture seem...well, a bit rosier. How did they realistically expect to make bad news sound good? “Well, most of the time we can't make it positive,” he said. “All we can do, really, is damage limitation.”

And damage is probably the best term for the press coverage the armed forces have received in recent years. A miserable picture has been painted, and that’s after the MoD press office has had a hand in it. It is a picture that has caused outrage among certain sections of the public, but if we’re honest the bad news only seems to have sunk in for former military personnel, military families and defence industry workers. Along with military enthusiasts, that means hundreds of thousands of people are well informed, but there is an enormous gulf between their understanding of defence issues and the general public’s. As a country, the UK doesn’t seem all that interested in how it is defended.

Of course, as someone who was recently made redundant, I am aware of the financial issues at work here, but for a lot of people, the difference between CAS and CASD is just the letter ‘D’, and even though I no longer work in defence journalism, the level of ignorance still rankles.

According to national coverage of defence, the Royal Navy scrapped HMS Invisible in 2011 (an error it took The Telegraph over a week to correct), and Spitfires were fighter jets (from a BBC Breakfast interview with Burma Spitfire recovery man David Cundall). Even though the term is obviously wrong based on a single glance at the aircraft, the BBC made this mistake without batting an eyelid. An ITV News producer rang me up before military action in Libya began to ask if the UK would send Typhoon jets from an aircraft carrier and how big Libya was compared to the jet’s range. The Sun also recently claimed that a test-firing of Trident was a “warning to Argentina”. No. No it wasn’t.

Now some of these examples are innocent enough mistakes, but they paint a poor picture of where defence sits in the pecking order in national newsrooms. Yes, there are journalists, dozens, who understand the nuts and bolts of UK defence, but producers, subbers and editors appear unsympathetic or out of the loop. And it is they who decide what gets pride of place in the news agenda.

Defence also suffers from a disproportionately large amount of ‘leaks’, whereby a journalist’s exclusivity on a piece of information can propel a defence story to the front of the newspaper, but this doesn’t change the fact that general coverage is inconsistent at best. The sheer number of leaks allows those doing the leaking to set the news agenda. By its nature, defence is a secretive and complex subject, and those controlling the drip drip of information out of the MoD are able to easily set the agenda for the hungry journalists on the outside. The secrecy, complexity and power structures within defence have priced it out of the reach of regular day-to-day coverage, and many newsrooms appear to have simply given up.

Shortly before the SDSR, Liam Fox wrote a letter to the Prime Minister saying the ‘Draconian’ cuts would put the national defence at risk. It was ‘leaked’ to the press. Fox was outraged, he said, and an MoD police investigation was launched. If the defence secretary can’t write to the Prime Minister in confidence (and what’s wrong with a bloody phone call, let’s be honest!) then something is seriously wrong. So up to 30 officers were investigating the source of this mysterious leak, which must have passed through...possibly five pairs of hands on its journey to number 10. What was the end result? Well for a long time, play was made that the investigation was complex and ongoing. Finally, earlier this year, I asked an MoD Police press officer what the deal was with that letter. “The investigation was concluded and the results reported to the Secretary of State”, came the response. I was dumbfounded. Trying to get meaningful answers out of the MoD  - who would almost certainly refuse to discuss those answers on security grounds - would take months and they knew it. All over something which appears so completely obvious that the best available guess must ultimately prevail in the imagination of the public. With odd behvaiour like this, it is no wonder the MoD is referred to as the Whitehall Puzzle Palace.

When army cuts were announced earlier this year, Army 2020 as they were called, the focus was instantly on the loss of cap badges. Not only were the cuts unpalatable, they were getting rid of established battalions, ones with successful recruitment records like 2 RRF. Scotland was probably going to lose battalions, and that could cost votes in the independence referendum. Of course, it is more important that the big picture of the army’s structure is balanced, rather than some old cap badges being preserved, but lost in the furore surrounding the regimental system was the suggestion that signals, artillery and engineer regiments would go, to be replaced, in some cases, by reservists as part of the ‘fingers crossed’ reserve force plans. The weight given to the leaks and outcry in defence reporting smothers any attempt at a more general day-to-day understanding of defence of the realm. Army 2020 leaks directly influenced which regiments were cut, dictating rules on preserving cap badges. As it turns out, outrage doesn’t have much of a shelf-life, so with the story exhausted, the day-to-day needs of the army and the business of running armed forces have since slipped back into relative obscurity.

Defence news is very easily ignored by the casual television viewer, very easily pushed down news agendas in papers because it can be technical, loaded with jargon and generally difficult to understand.

Defence is said to be the first duty of government, but it is reported nationally as though it were a sixth or seventh, falling somewhere after health, crime, social services, Europe, TV talent competitions and the weather.

The issue remains, and it is not being reported anywhere near seriously enough, that of all the 2020 force structures being developed by former big Cold War players, Britain’s is the least fit for purpose. It is a plan for forces small beyond the obvious population size limitations and is the most clearly austerity-led planning document for some time. Our forces are being cut to save money and that money is going into other government cash vacuums. Future Force 2020 will have some fine equipment at its disposal, but each service will be small, the Royal Navy too small to operate both aircraft carriers even, and it will not be enough to convince the new or old superpowers that we’re a serious contender. You cannot do more with less; you can only do less with less. And we do not even have a valid national strategy document saying what 21st Century Britain wants to do with itself.

Britain has a role in the world, but it is currently one that is shaky and ill-defined and there are very few votes to be won in correcting that. If you want votes these days you have to talk about money, not safety. We are so used to effortless post-Cold War national security that it is being  taken for granted that conventional forces’ days are numbered. Well, the sooner Britain gets its head out of its economic ass, the better.

British forces did a fine job in Libya, but the recent equipment cuts meant that for all the expertise and equipment sent out there, we were reduced to tagging along with the US like the fat kid on the football team.

What do soldiers do on 'patrols' ? Is their equipment good enough day to day or do we have to wait for 20 or 30 to die before we turn immediately to outrage over one issue? Are our armoured vehicle plans up to scratch? These are things you couldn’t reasonably expect your average Briton to answer, but you should be able to. Defence deserves better coverage.

There will always be some people that ‘do’ defence, interest groups or armchair admirals like me, but as long as defence is way down the news agenda there are plenty of opportunities to ignore it. And that, my friends, is a crying shame.

 Joel Shenton, former editor of


  1. My local radio station tells me that HMS Invincible was decommissioned in 1978. According to R4 (who should know better), HMS Albion is half the size of the ship she replaced (HMS Fearless). The Daily Mail (that obviously doesn't know any better) reminded us of the bombing of HMS Sir Galahad and HMS Sir Tristram in their "Falklands 25" feature. Can anyone spot the errors?

    1. Well, find comfort in the fact that, if you ask Argentina, they'll tell you that HMS Invincible was in fact sunk, HMS Illustrious was renamed Invincible in the UK and a fourth carrier was built to cover up the sinking... Pretty extreme, to say the least! Power of propaganda.

  2. @Joel Shenton

    A tremendous article. Full of insight and hard-headed good sense. Every point made is right on the ball.

    I have followed defence for many years now and am constantly amazed at the general public’s ignorance of the subject. As you say: “As a country, the UK doesn’t seem all that interested in how it is defended” and “Defence is said to be the first duty of government, but it is reported nationally as though it were a sixth or seventh, falling somewhere after health, crime, social services, Europe, TV talent competitions and the weather.”

    I think it has perhaps something to do with the fact that we are so far removed from World War Two or indeed from any conflict that has affected the British public in an immediate way. Most of the recent campaigns in which we have been involved have been geographically distant from the UK and the result has been indifference on the part of the public. We no longer have National service or anything really that might inspire a sense of identity with the Armed Forces.

    Far more worrying, though, is the lack of seriousness in our society in general. I am reminded of a celebrated article some years ago by the “Telegraph”’s (at that time) cricket correspondent, Michael Henderson. He had a phenomenal response, receiving hundreds of letters after its publication. In it he argued that Saul Bellow’s description of the United States as “the kingdom of frivolity” was not true, as the true bearer of that title was now England. He goes on to argue that no one who truly cares about this land can fail to be disturbed by the “vulgarity and unthinking hedonism” of its people. It is really an article about the effects of misapplied liberal values on our education system and how a social cataclysm has made English life so disgusting: “Everything is trivial and disposable and available for “the people” with their diminished expectations.” His conclusion is that “a kind of affluent poverty exists in which no one feels anything except a permanent boredom”, so that when they go to Test matches , which people used to watch properly, they must dress up as clowns, get drunk and run on to the field.

    Now Henderson might have exaggerated the case somewhat and generalised too broadly but I think there is much truth in his basic argument that “We are living in a frivolous country with a death wish and that no one seems to care.” If you breed (and a third-rate education system is partly to blame here) a nation that lacks gravitas and the ability to contemplate serious issues seriously, then you will end up with a people who prefer to watch vacuous celebrity non-entities and inane “reality” shows on TV rather than attempt to engage in more serious matters such the Defence of the Realm.

    Rant over and I haven’t even started on the attitude of the press and the MOD towards the subject. I might just ask, though, whether you have ever seen a more depressing website than that run by the MOD. News on the future shape of our forces and on equipment is minimal and many pages have not been updated for yonks. It has got even worse since it has been taken in under the umbrella of the Government UK website.

  3. Well, you're right. The stories that appear on the MoD's website are pointless PR guff. It updates people on Afghanistan only when it reaches a PR point, such as this case of a soldier 'saved' by his body armour: .

    But while Collins' body armour prevented his death, it could not prevent the tragedy that later unfolded, just months after returning and toasting the Osprey team.

    I guess what I'm saying is that between the apparent success of the first story and the complete tragedy of the second is a man's life; risked, 'saved' and then lost as a result of decisions taken by government. Few stories actually haunt me, but this is one of them. It would have been very easy to see these news snippets alone and not complete the picture; to let the MoD website stand alone, believing Collins to still be alive. Follow just the tragedy of the inquest story and you have a sad waste of a life, but there is a larger narrative at work here. Cause and effect; strategy, politics and mental health care, all of which should be understood and handled by governments if they are to be entrusted with defence and citizens if they are to hold government to account.

  4. @Joel
    "The stories that appear on the MoD's website are pointless PR guff. It updates people on Afghanistan only when it reaches a PR point, such as this case of a soldier 'saved' by his body armour"

    Precisely. A very perceptive point. It sometimes seems to me that the MOD is just as much dominated by "spin" as the politicians themselves. I know that the Ministry has a difficult job, what with there being little or no money around and cutbacks everywhere but can't public relations be done in a less manipulative "PR" manner?

    1. I'm always amazed by how the defence chiefs always do try to minimize the bad news, even when they are questioned about cuts by the Parliamentary Defence Review.
      I remember few cases of defence chiefs in recent times trying, at least, to fight back: the First Sea Lord in 2008 when he threatened to resign over the RAF's plan to get rid of the Harriers, and then Jonathon Band last year when he spoke out his warning on the overstretch of the navy at the time of Libya operations.

      For the rest? It is depressing how little the defence chiefs do to try and steer the public to their side, and to get some support from the Parliamentary Committee is very much keen to give as it is.
      The recent hearing of General Peter Wall was an example: he was horribly careful not to put the government's cuts in a bad light, and tried in all ways to hide the uncomfortable truth from the Committee's questions as long as possible.

      In a way it is admirable. In the other, it sure isn't, because it covers up very real issues with vague promises and "we are taking greater risks, but manageable", which is becoming more and more common a statement in recent times.

  5. Gaby

    "In a way it is admirable. In the other, it sure isn't, because it covers up very real issues with vague promises and "we are taking greater risks, but manageable", which is becoming more and more common a statement in recent times."

    Well, precisely. And the trouble that such a statement often covers up the truth that the situation is not "manageable". Even Phil Hammond himself has commented recently that any more cuts would mean that defence had been cut below an acceptable level, or words to that effect.


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