Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 786 - 799)

WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2000

MISS OONA MUIRHEAD AND MR JOHN PITT-BROOKE

Chairman

  786. Welcome. You start off really well in that nobody preceding you actually believed you told lies so at least there has been progress in the last 20 years. Thank you very much for coming. I am sorry we kept you waiting. First of all, could I ask you to set the scene as to what you were actually up to during the conflict.

  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Perhaps I could start. I am now the Director General of Corporate Communications in the Ministry of Defence which means I have overall responsibility not only for our press office operation and all of our PR activity but also for the PR operations of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the uniformed as well as civil service, a new position in the Department. It was a position created last June. I arrived about two days after the bombs stopped falling so although I am closely involved in the follow-on work and in getting ready for "next time", I was not involved in the day-to-day business of the events we have been talking about today but Oona very much was involved in that and perhaps she could introduce herself.
  (Ms Muirhead) I am Oona Muirhead and I was at the time called Director of Information Strategy and News. I took up my post in 1997. You might, Mr Chairman, want me to talk about the restructuring we did at the time because I think it was pertinent to the way we approached the operation in Kosovo itself. During the operation in Kosovo I was the chief person in the back behind the scenes really trying to make sure that the system worked and that our media operation operated effectively and efficiently. I do not know if you want me to say a little bit what our aims were in that media operation.

  Chairman: Mr Viggers wants to ask a personal question first.

Mr Viggers

  787. The Civil Service sometimes rotates its people through treasury posts, public relations posts and so on. Are you professional public relations people or are you professional civil servants?
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Neither of us are professional public relations people. We have both had conventional careers in the fast stream and have done a range of jobs accordingly in private offices and so on.

Chairman

  788. Before they moved you into information, I shall not use the word that immediately springs to mind, before they moved you into your jobs did they do what the Foreign Office does before you go off to Iran and learn the local language? Did they give you any courses before you took up the post or did you simply move from one job into something absolutely different?
  (Ms Muirhead) That is what normally happens but actually in my case in 1997 it was slightly different in that I was brought in in September to look at the organisation which I was then going to run and be part of and I was asked to look at it critically and make recommendations for how it should be restructured so I had a period of a few weeks where I was talking to the people in the existing organisation at that time and then I made recommendations as to how the organisation should change and what the new aims and objectives of the organisation should be. I had a bedding-in period which was extremely valuable but after that it was largely learning on the job with obviously some professional help in terms of training courses but also relying and drawing very much on the professionals around me.

  789. I keep banging on about the Falklands but it was apocryphal, I would have hoped, in the handling of the media because the MoD took such a beating around the head and quite deservedly so. They commissioned studies from King's College London and they had a full inquiry (not just one session) into what could have been a failure but the war ended before credibility had been lost. Do you go back far enough? You do not but as part of the folk memory what lessons were derived from the Falklands War and the Gulf War so when the next one came along it was clearly done more professionally than it had been even in the Gulf and certainly infinitely more professional than the rather pathetic endeavour in the Falklands War which were seen to be grossly inadequate.
  (Ms Muirhead) I was certainly in the Ministry of Defence in the Falklands War but, as you rightly surmise, I was not involved in operations. There is obviously a lot of folklore that resides around the corridors of the Ministry of Defence from that. I was however involved in the Gulf War on the operational side in the Ministry of Defence main building and I think we did take a number of lessons from the Gulf War as well as the Falklands and we sought to apply those in particular during my time in my post as the Director of Information Strategy and News in relation to our operations in Iraq in 1998.

  790. Nobody put their hands up to being responsible for psychological operations in 1982. Would they normally fall within your remit or is that quite a separate structure?
  (Ms Muirhead) It is a slightly complicated answer because it depends what you term "psychological operations" and it is not a term we use any more in the Ministry.

  791. What is it called now?
  (Ms Muirhead) "Information support" but if I could characterise it as two key activities, one of which is to seek to defeat your enemy by directing operations directly at your enemy and his military structure and hierarchy and the second is to get on board on side with you the population in the area in which you are operating, so that for example in Bosnia the military conducted psychological operations using a particular group of people, but there were others who were doing the public information job and were also contributing to the overall aim of explaining to the people of Bosnia why we were there, that IFOR and SFOR were completely impartial, etcetera, etcetera. In a sense we were all contributing to the same aim but there may be different parts of the organisation that do it.
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Could I say something about this process of learning lessons from previous campaigns. It is part of my own role and it is a very pertinent point at the moment. We hope to get it better every time against the background of a media climate that is changing all the time because of the technology, because of the issues of tempo that Jonathan Marcus mentioned earlier and the demands of the news organisations and so on. We have a small operation going on at the moment, Sierra Leone, in which we are having to address some of the issues we are talking about. We hope our performance there is better than it was last time but when that is over we will review that process yet again so we are very much in a never-ending process of learning.

  792. We had as an adviser in those distant days Harry Chapman Pincher, the famous Express journalist, and he found out something quite interesting, that there was a study on how to handle the media during a small War but it was filed away and was not recovered or discovered until two-thirds of the way through the conflict. That is the level of the professionalism that pertained at the time. Obviously the Ministry of Defence realised events were turning sour two years before the war started. Did you have in the Ministry of Defence a series of files, if you have files any more, on how to handle the media in the event of a war whatever name it goes under, in Bosnia or Kosovo, so when the war came along you had your plans and you knew exactly how to proceed?
  (Ms Muirhead) One thing we certainly have had since the Gulf War is what we call the Green Book which is the guidelines drawn up jointly by the Ministry of Defence and the media side on workingrelationships between the Ministry of Defence and the media in times of tension, crisis and war and thatis certainly something that has been a Bible andsomething that has never been filed away but has been constantly on the shelf ever since the Gulf War. It was produced, as I say, jointly.

  793. We would love to have a copy of that if the journalists and hacks can have it.
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Oona said it was on the shelf, but it was off my shelf on Monday morning because we were discussing precisely what kind of arrangements we might achieve for deploying journalists in support of operations in Sierra Leone. It is a working document.

  794. So it gets down to the level of journalists, it is not just a deal struck between editors?
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Not at all.
  (Ms Muirhead) In fact, might I say that for the period between the beginning of 1988 until I left my post it was in my tray because we had had dialogue with the media on a very regular basis about what arrangements we would set in hand if and when time came to deploy into theatre. So it really is a document that is used.

  795. Did you have dummy runs before the War started? Did you have people simulating ministers and chiefs of defence staff.
  (Ms Muirhead) Of course the Ministry of Defence has a series of exercises and there is always a media input into military exercises. What I would say is we tend to do it as part of the normal exercise programme.

  796. The Ministry of Defence works by planning and training. That is the way the Ministry of Defence operates in every field so when the situation comes along they have some kind of formulated plan they can put into effect rather than starting from scratch but of course it also needs to have personnel. Do you have the planning and training and personnel so you can put into operation any predetermined plan?
  (Ms Muirhead) I think we are getting much much better. We have much more of a detailed plan and much more idea of where the personnel are going to come from than previously. Might I say that prior to operations relating to Iraq in 1998 each of the Services had probably taken a slightly different approach. I think the Army in particular had done an awful lot because of their experience in Bosnia and therefore they had done an awful lot of training of spokesman, of escort officers, of people who would be involved in handling and having a relationship with the media in times of tension and crisis. That probably was not quite so true for the other two Services because they had not had that experience in Bosnia (and Mr Pitt-Brooke can obviously talk a lot more about this than I) and what we are now seeking to do is to ensure that evenly across the board that there is identification of manpower, training of manpower, making sure the equipment is there and ready to fly at very short notice.
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) That is precisely right. The central lesson I think we learn from every media campaign during every operation is this area ofactivity gets more important every time. We have got to make sure that we apply to the task in hand sufficient quantity and quality of resources for all manner of things. This needs people to accompany journalists and broadcasters into the area of operations, people to run our new Internet set up, which is a brand new area of activity, people to write articles and do the 1,001 things 24 hours a day required of us. We are investing a lot time and effort at the moment in the selection and training of those people so that when next time occurs, and I am sorry it is a phrase I will probably use a lot, we have a cadre of people who are instantly available trained to the same standard—Army, Navy, Air Force, civilians—equipped in the same way, working under the same doctrine and procedures who can be deployed wherever necessary (as of last week in Sierra Leone) as well as augmenting the staff we have got dealing with these matters here in Whitehall. We are making great progress in this area.

  797. Where will these people be coming from when the next time occurs?
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) As well as the people who are working in those areas full time in peace time, if I can so characterise it, we have to identify from elsewhere within the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces people who are suitable and trained who can be moved across from their day jobs to these activities very quickly.

  798. Those are currently serving personnel in the armed forces.
  (Mr Pitt-Brooke) Some of them are. Some of them are reserves who are specialists in civilian life in this area of activity. Others are civil servants who work elsewhere in the Ministry of Defence who will come in as augmentees.

Mr Gapes

  799. Does NATO have the equivalent of your Green Book?
  (Ms Muirhead) I am not sure that I am wholly qualified to answer that question. I do not know the answer.



 
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