Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 780 - 785)



  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 Chairman!

  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?
  (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 you?
  (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 much.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 6 July 2000