Friday, December 21, 2012
Defence news is simply too easy to ignore
Joel Shenton, former editor of Defencemanagement.com, 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 Defencemanagement.com