Memorandum submitted by Mr Peter Almond,
Chairman, Defence Correspondents Association
1. DEFENCE CORRESPONDENTS
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
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
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
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.
2. KOSOVO OPERATION
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
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
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
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