Examination of Witnesses (Questions 780
WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2000
780. After 150 years of war reporting we still
regard it as a newly invented curse to armies.
(Mr Simpson) I have not been doing it 150 years, Mr
781. Just one last question from Mr Almond through
to Mr Laity. In working out your own lessons of Kosovo, bearing
in mind the way Washington, the Ministry of Defence, NATO and
others sought to handle the media, what advice would you offer
as to ways in which they might do it differently and even better?
(Mr Almond) One of the things that I certainly would
press for is a greater explanation of the strategic targets, for
instance the bridges over the Danube etcetera, which I never had
an adequate answer to as part of that strategic target, explaining
exactly why they needed to be hit; I feel this would have also
helped the public in Serbia, perhaps reducing their opposition
to NATO. Secondly, I would press for more background briefings.
As I explained, there is a sense that you cannot ask on the air
directly those you are trying to help and those who would benefit
and gain from it in both Belgrade and Pristina the detailed kinds
of questions which a specialist journalist would need to ask.
I would press for that. I will pass on.
782. Mr Simpson?
(Mr Simpson) I think that really NATO and the Ministry
of Defence were trying too hard to meet what they assumed was
the demands of journalism. I think they should have been a bit
tighter on what they were doing and I think they should have given
less information and more certain information. Easy to say, very
difficult to do. They would have been accused of all sorts of
thing no doubt if they had held off more. I think that really
was where it all came unstuck.
783. Mr Urban?
(Mr Urban) I would agree with Peter, more background
briefings particular in the run up to the conflict which did not
seem to be there at all this time. I would also say can we get
a certain type of political rhetoric out of the daily briefing
process. It is entirely unnecessary. I think all of us perhaps
over-estimate the degree to which MoD product and indeed our product
is influential with modern media consumers which treats scepticism
as almost a cardinal virtue including criticism of what we say.
I think it is becoming harder and harder for any single input
into the average media consumer's mix to be regarded as decisive
in its importance.
784. Thank you. Mr Marcus?
(Mr Marcus) I am not sure how you end
up getting government officials to say less, although in some
cases I suppose it
(Mr Simpson) You did not cover the Falklands, did
(Mr Marcus) Clearly the problem of the voracious demands
of media outlets are not going to allow that. Speaking purely
as a defence correspondent it would be nice in a broader sense
to have a greater purely military element in the briefings and
rather less of the political side. If I might make a comparison,
and I do not want it to sound like an invidious comparison, working
for the World Service largely I have a lot more to do with the
Pentagon than with the MoD here. If you go to the Pentagon, 99
times out of 100 your queries are dealt with by a senior officer
and usually a senior officer with experience of the area you are
talking about. 99 times out of 100 in the British system you speak
to a government information officer who may be very well-intentioned
and reasonably well-informed but it is not same thing. There is
a small military element in the press side of the MoD but it is
very small, I think, under-resourced, under-staffed and has too
many other functions to do along the public relations line.
785. Ms Muirhead can give the answer to that
question when she has the opportunity. Mr Laity?
(Mr Laity) I will give a different point. There are
many I could give. The area which is critical in any crisis is
that the journalist is a minute away from a live spot and any
organisation, United Kingdom, NATO anything else, has got to up
the game so they can get into place, in bulk, in time. Too often
we have seen you eventually wind up the response to the journalist
up, but the journalists arrive on day one ready to go panting
and the key lesson is to have a system fast enough, quick enough
and big enough to be able to cope as quickly as the journalists
who are going to be asking the questions.
(Mr Marcus) That is what he is doing now.
Chairman: That was very, very interesting.
If you do have the urge to add to what you have said please would
you write to the Clerk and we will include that in our evidence.
Thank you very much for coming. We still love you all despite
our views of you more collectively. Come along to Defence Committee
meetings more often rather than just the diehards. Thank you so