Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Peter Almond, Chairman, Defence Correspondents Association


  I hesitate to offer the following as the definitive views of each and every member of the DCA, but if I stick to generalities I'd like to think they would find little with which to disagree.

  I founded the Defence Correspondents Association in April 1992, after it became apparent that the prospects for this media specialisation were declining. The Cold War was over, the Gulf War was over, NATO was taking a back seat to UN peacekeeping efforts in former Yugoslavia. Options for Change, the government's post-Cold War cutback programme, was beginning to take shape.

  Defence ceased to become No.3 in the list of government priorities, and this led to a reconsideration across the media. With departure of the last full-time defence correspondent of the Daily Mail the tabloid press had no full-time defence specialists at all. The job was filled part-time by other staffers.

  Even the Daily Telegraph, traditional bastion of defence reporting, was not immune from the winds of change. From 1986, when the Telegraph had three full-time defence correspondents (one for each service), the paper went to two and then one, with a further part-time Defence Editor. "Bread and butter" defence stories, such as annual service pay reviews, government reports, etc started to be cut down or not used at all. Political and lobby reporters started to pick up more and more defence reporting.

  It seemed to me that if defence correspondents were to retain their specialisation they needed to have better access to decision-makers at MoD. As a former defence correspondent for the Washington Times, working out of the Pentagon from 1987-90 (when I joined the Telegraph) I was a member of the Defense Writers Group, which met regularly for breakfast or lunch with senior defence officials. These meetings often produced on-the-record stories unobtainable to those who were not defence writers and thus helped us maintain the need for our specialisation with editors.

  The Defence Correspondents Association set out to build similar value for us. At first we insisted that only national press, radio and TV reporters who committed at least 50% of their time on defence would be eligible. Thus we started with about 17 members: Times, Telegraph (two including John Keegan, emeritus as defence editor), Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Sunday Telegraph, Glasgow Herald, Economist, Observer, Press Association, European, (nominally Daily Express and Daily Mail), BBC-TV, BBC Radio, BBC World Service, ITN. Apart from the Economist we did not invite members of the trade press, such as Jane's or Flight.

  We invited senior defence and industry officials to be our guests for lunch once a month, or every other month, at a room at the Horseguards Hotel and then the Charing Cross Hotel. These were background-only sessions, with no attribution and with care on how we reported them. The aim was to give confidence to those senior officials that at least we, as defence specialists, had a knowledge and long-term interest in defence and that it was equally in their interests to have such people in the national media who could accurately analyse and report on current defence events. We hoped our guests would be forthcoming. Generally, I think, they did try. At least we gained a better appreciation of events and issues and did get their views across without embarrassing them.

  We also tried to offer some suggestions to the MoD, eg looking through draft revisions of the Green Book (media in time of war) and making various points about media provisions with the Newspaper Publishers Association and MoD. We have raised concerns about public accountability on procurement costs, on video links with PJHQ, and on media access to the MoD when Main Building is redeveloped.

  I can't say we have had too much luck, however. Our group is too loosely organised (I am the sole cook and bottle washer) and the PR organisation and secrecy culture within the MoD too strong to make more than just a small dent in media relations.

  It has not helped, too, that over the years media defence specialisation has continued to run down. The Independent did not replace its full-time defence correspondent. The European folded. The Guardian and Economist acquired "security correspondents" to take on more intelligence and foreign office briefs. The Press Association lost its excellent defence correspondent after trying to persuade him to continue it from a new assignment in the Lobby. Correspondents for ITN and BBC-TV took increasingly wider tasks and started to lose their specialist skills. I left the Telegraph in mid 1995 following internal management changes which moved defence more to one of crisis response.

  These changes may well have been inevitable, however. The increasingly competitive nature of the national media has required significant changes in recent years. Women's issues, features, travel, music, leisure impinge on a news agenda that has become more personalised and less issue-orientated. Serious broadsheets which once specialised in deep foreign and domestic issues have been required to compete increasingly with the tabloids to maintain market share.

  The prime impact upon defence is that complex issues are more difficult to place in the national media. Defence stories now generally fall into three broad categories: 1/ Operational, eg Kosovo, Sierra Leone. 2/ Personnel, eg lawsuits, recruitment and retention, sex n'soldiers, Carpets and Curtains. 3/ "Gee whiz" technology, including equipment problems. Operations still command page priority across the media, of course, but the time is now passed when the Sun would focus on "Our Lads" while Page One of The Times dealt with the strategic concept. Personnel issues are now a priority across the media, with significant repercussions for defence chiefs in considering casualties and overstretch.

  Since operations only occupy a relatively small segment of time, however, the "routine" defence story is now more heavily geared to Category 2, although there appears to be certain demand for the high tech stories that increasingly drive the military agenda. It should be understood by the services, however, that routine defence stories require more of an "angle" or writing skill to get into the national press than hitherto, and that the exacting standards they may have expected in the past are no longer the norm.

  I may bemoan the loss of quality as much as senior officers, but the facts are that with a public and news editors less and less experienced and interested in the military it takes more effort to get their attention. There is, unfortunately, an attitude in the services that doesn't mind this lack of attention at all, in fact encourages it. It is a "let us get on with our job" attitude that is to be applauded in its devotion to duty and high standards, but short-sighted in failing to realise that without public support and understanding their careers will be blighted by decreasing finance and in recruitment and retention problems.

  The Defence Correspondents Association still holds occasional lunches for senior officials, but its membership today includes only four of the founding members: myself, Michael Evans of the Times, Jonathan Marcus of BBC World Service, and Jim McKillop of the Glasgow Herald. There is no longer a requirement that 50%-plus of a member's work now be devoted to defence, and membership has been widened to include Paul Beaver of Janes and Doug Barrie of Defense News. Other members are: Tim Butcher, Daily Telegraph; Bruce Clark, Economist; Alex Nicoll, FT; Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian; Andrew Gilligan, BBC Today; Kevin Dunn, ITN. Others probably should be added, but the defence media market is currently so fluid that representation appears to depend more than usual on personal interest and involvement.


A more personal note

  In March 1999, I was a freelance defence correspondent for several national newspapers and became particularly in demand when the first bombs started to drop. I started regular work for the Daily Telegraph, then was contracted by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard. I also wrote for the Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday and was a regular expert for BBC News-24, Sky-TV and BBC radio.

  My main concerns about the media aspects of the Kosovo operation are as follows:

  1.  It is my view that when the shooting starts the politicians have failed, and I want to hear much more from the military leaders. I fully accept the politicians must retain control of the military, but when both are present at press briefings it is the military leader I really want to hear from, not his boss. The point was made to Tom King, Defence Secretary, at the start of the Gulf War, who did try to hand more to the CDS, ACM Lord David Craig, but who, unfortunately, entirely lacked the erudition of "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf.

  Things were not much better at the Kosovo press briefings. Lord Robertson was a much better speaker than CDS Sir Charles Guthrie, whose particular military background may not have encouraged him to be more open with the press about operational events. With his senior present, Gen Guthrie stuck closely to the largely unmilitary tone set by George Robertson.

  2.  The live broadcasting of the daily press briefings at MoD may have given the British an ideal global platform to press the West's case against the Milosevic regime, but it was an inhibitor to vigorous questioning from journalists. I certainly found it hard to press questions about strategy, tactics and weapons knowing that my words were being carried not only to Washington but to Belgrade and to the many thousands of Kosovar refugees hanging on every positive word from London. To have asked the hard questions in that forum where, increasingly, my defence correspondent colleagues were absent, would have been to present myself as an almost-lone "troublemaker" in the eyes of many. Perhaps I should have done so anyway, if only to have encouraged a higher quality of questioning, but I confess to a degree of self-censorship.

  3.  What would have helped was more background press briefings from MoD officials much closer to the reality of the operations. But there were relatively few of those. Perhaps I am at fault for not pressing the issue, but I was otherwise preoccupied.

  Among the issues badly explained were:

    (a)  Strategic rationale for many targets in Serbia, particularly the Danube bridges, media and industrial targets. I feel that bombing the bridges, for instance, may have actually incited many Serb civilians to increase their opposition to NATO. I can understand the reasons (optic fibre cables under the bridge structures, interruption of Danube traffic and military reinforcements from north to south, strike at civilian morale, attack on business interests of Milosevic's closest supporters, etc), but for an air war intended to be short and sharp the initial Serb civilian anger Nato created appeared to be designed for a much longer war.

    (b)  British involvement in the air campaign, which was much overstated. There were far too few operational statistics and too many rosy estimates on bomb damage assessments. The MoD's briefings, pitched at a militarily-ignorant audience, failed to provide the more balanced considerations demanded of defence correspondents.

  4.  Air power is notoriously difficult to pursue, film and report. Reporters cannot travel in fast jets on a combat mission (I believe only two US journalists succeeded in joining B-52 strikes) and can only rarely film the beginning and end. Reports of bomb damage on Serbia and Kosovo were inevitably manipulated by Belgrade and subject to censorship by NATO.

  What could have helped more, however, was a better presentation of the capabilities of British and Nato equipment and tactics which might have helped dispel some public scepticism. Newspapers are increasingly using graphics, which they prepare themselves, often on the basis of guidance from defence correspondents, but often with no guidance at all. But none were offered by the MoD. Thus one newspaper drew a British submarine firing a Tomahawk cruise missile from a hatch behind its sail (conning tower) when it is actually launched through the boat's torpedo tubes. Another newspaper graphic completely misunderstood the way a laser-guided bomb drops onto its target.

  The MoD does employ graphic artists, and it could be in their interests to offer such graphics to the media.

  I hope this is all of some service to the committee.

30 May 2000

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