Examination of Witnesses (Questions 800
WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2000
800. Perhaps you could let us know. My question
relates to do the professionals in your Department work in co-ordination
with the other nations within NATO and was there any attempt prior
to this conflict for yourselves and your American counterparts
and others to get together to discuss with the NATO machinery
how they would deal as NATO with the media.
(Ms Muirhead) I think there are a number of parts
to your question. Could I first of all start by saying that I
think obviously the previous witnesses did talk quite a bit about
NATO. I am not sure we can speak on behalf of NATO.
801. I am not asking you to.
(Ms Muirhead) Indeed, but I want to make the point
that unlike the previous speakers I really do not feel that that
would be right. As for what we did in terms of dealing with our
partners and preparing ourselves, we did quite a bit on a bilateral
basis. We had been dealing obviously very closely with the Americans
for a number of years and certainly I have had very close contact
with my counterpart, Ken Bacon, in the Pentagon. We had discussed
this situation in considerable detail during the course of 1998.
We had very detailed discussions about what we would do in the
event of a crisis in the Middle East which obviously read across
to anywhere else in the world and how we would organise the media
operations set up in the theatre, all of which issues are covered
in our Green Book. So yes the answer is we had had a number of
discussions bilaterally. We had not, certainly I had not discussed
this with NATO.
Whether there had been such discussions in the context of exercises
within NATO headquarters with the international staff I cannot
say and you would need to ask NATO but we had not. Obviously when
the crisis was looming in Kosovo I made very urgent contact with
Jamie Shea and Jamie Shea and I used to speak on a daily basis.
802. When was that? Was that in advance of the
decision to start the air campaign?
(Ms Muirhead) Our regular contact started after the
air campaign started.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) I think it is fair to say, and I
know they would say it, NATO has had to make up a lot of ground
in a hurry during the campaign and subsequently NATO is very keen,
I know, to introduce more effective media play, as it is called,
into their own training and exercise programme so that we are
all used to dealing with each other in a NATO context around these
803. It seems to me NATO had to learn the lessons
which you or your predecessors learnt the hard way. It is really
surprising it took a war to force them to do what one would have
hoped they had been preparing for anyway because NATO has been
anticipating a conflict since 1949. Why was it that in the first
one it really gets it is caught with its collective trousers down?
(Ms Muirhead) All I would say is clearly the kind
of operation we had in Kosovo was very different to a Cold War
type of scenario.
804. Brave attempt, but it is not a very good
defence of NATO. They keep telling us they have to prepare for
all possible contingencies. If ever there was a series of warning
signs something was going to go nastily wrong in the Balkans it
should have been glaringly obvious. The fact is it took half way
through the campaign and a visit by hitmen from London before
they did what they ought to have done.
(Ms Muirhead) The only other thing I would say is
of course in a NATO operation you have even more centres of gravity
than you do in a bilateral or a coalition operation. We have become
accustomed to having different centres of gravity in a coalition
operation. In the Gulf War the centre of gravity for us was in
London and it was in theatre and obviously there is a huge centre
of gravity in America as well and France, etcetera, etcetera.
Now of course all of that was true again for Kosovo, but the added
complicating factor in terms of the centre of gravity was that
Brussels was the focus of attention during the air campaign. I
am sure NATO would acknowledge they did not prepare for that.
I think probably they felt more would be done on a national basis
in capitals than was actually the case. Not that a lot was not
done in capitals because a lot was, but I think they thought most
of it would be done in capitals rather than in Brussels.
805. A comment first which is that the Cold
War ended ten years before this particular conflict and surely
in that ten years some thought ought to have been given within
NATO to how you would deal at some point with a particular conflict.
I am not criticising the individuals in MoD now but clearly there
has been a very long period since the end of the Cold War. My
question is what perception did you have of the NATO media efforts.
When you saw there were difficulties which particular difficulties
were you most concerned about. When did you decide you had to
go in and sort it out?
(Ms Muirhead) On the question of the Cold War versus
current operations I absolutely entirely agree with you. The point
goes back to centres of gravity because what NATO had been dealing
with (and had systems operationally in place to deal with) was
a media operation in theatre because they had been doing it in
Bosnia. It was the fact that the focus of attention was now in
Brussels was something that took them by surprise. You might say
it should not have done and I would not disagree with you. From
my perspective I think I would give you pretty much the same answer
as you got from your previous witnesses which was it was simply
a question of the amount of resources that they had looking at
this activity and carrying out this activity. The fact is that
you do need sufficient people to be able to winkle the information
out of the chain of command, to test it, to ask the difficult
questions and the follow up questions. "If we say this, what
are we going to be asked next? Are you absolutely certain about
this piece of information? Can I use it and when can I use it?"
All sorts of questions. You need to be able to do that. Jamie
Shea was running a one-man band. When it became apparent that
the focus of the world's media was on Brussels it became quickly
apparent that something needed to be done there from NATO's side.
806. Was there any resistance from either within
the MoD or from other NATO countries to the changes that were
then brought about?
(Ms Muirhead) From the perspective of the Ministry
of Defence we very much welcomed it. I think we had felt that
we had to some extent been trying to make up for NATO's deficiencies
on a national basis and the fact that they were now going to be
able to do more both in Brussels but also to help us because naturally
we wanted to have more information about what was happening across
the coalition, across NATO and not just nationally, was very much
to be welcomed. I cannot speak for all other NATO countries but
certainly anyone I spoke to welcomed it as well.
807. Did any of you know Jamie Shea before this
started? Do you have regular contact with the NATO press organisation?
(Ms Muirhead) I know the answer to that is no. I cannot
remember when I first met Jamie Shea.
Mr Hancock: He was very low down in the
Chairman: He was low down 15 years ago
when he was visits officer, then he was speech writer and now
he is very high in the hierarchy.
808. In the pecking order there he was in a
nowhere land. I am surprised NATO had somebody like him in post
and the MoD did not have regular contact with him in advance.
(Ms Muirhead) I think there are two points there,
firstly on his position in the NATO hierarchy. My understanding
is that his position was quite high in the NATO hierarchy and
that he had very regular access to the Secretary-General. He was
his personal press secretary and as such you would expect him
to have quite a privileged position in the organisation. The question
of whether that meant that we should have had dealings with him
on a bilateral basis before Kosovo is a different question.
809. Do you think you should have?
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) There were no issues where we were
working together with NATO on matters which were of great press
interest so we were never obliged to make that kind of connection.
Mr Hancock: I find that amazing.
810. This really does reinforce the point I
was probing at earlier, there are exercises of NATO ships with
NATO ships and NATO aircraft with NATO aircraft and NATO troops
with NATO troops. If we do take press/public relations matters
seriously we really should be devoting resources which enable
NATO media assets from the different countries to exercise together.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) I can say that whereas before Kosovo
we may not have spoken to Jamie Shea very much, we now speak to
him a great deal, as I speak to my opposite numbers in Paris,
Berlin and Washington frequently, and we will meet together and
talk about issues so that again next time we will be in a position
to hit the ground running collectively.
811. The problem has been identified many, many
times. Shea was supremely confident and competent had a high credibility,
was intelligent, had a PhD, had been working in NATO for all his
working life, was a very high level by the standards of public
information departments and I think the problem was not him but
the problem, as you correctly identify, was that he was on his
own. I appreciate the honesty of your memorandum, paragraph 51.
Even though it was a far more professional operation than in previous
wars you did admit a number of things that needed to be done and
in some ways there were some fairly basic inadequacies, if not
failures, so that you too perhaps were taken by surprise. You
said there was a lack of preparedness, lack of resources, the
press office was undermanned, lack of training especially for
senior staff, lack of skilled personnel, eg training and escort
officers specialised in implementation of new media, limited effectiveness
in identifying levers for influencing Serb perceptions. So in
a way the MoD was taken a little bit by surprise. Even though
they improvised very well, at the end of the day it came out well,
it seems to me although we are critical of the way in which NATO
dealt with such matters, whoever wrote the memorandum very honestly
said there was some profound creaking in the way the Ministry
of Defence structure did its media relations.
(Ms Muirhead) It is certainly true to say there was
a lot of improvision and an awful lot of hard work on the part
of everyone to make it work. The sorts of deficiencies which you
have identified, Chairman, were identifiedand I can only
talk about the last two and a bit yearsin 1998 and we were
starting to improve matters but there was still more to be done
by the time that we had the Kosovo operation and therefore that
is why in a sense we identified some of the lessons we had identified
the year before, and I am delighted to say that, as John has said,
there is a really high priority being placed on rectifying them.
812. When you said you were getting it right
or working to get it right, what were you working to get right?
The case the MoD wanted to be put over, the NATO case, the Ministers's
shining star moment in front of the cameras at the MoD? What was
the most important for you as a task for the day?
(Ms Muirhead) Thank you for that question
because I mentioned earlier, Mr Chairman, I might talk about what
our aims were and our aims were really three-fold in the media
operation. Firstly, it was to contribute to the military objectives,
ie that of getting Milosevic to back down and do what NATO wanted
him to do, and I think I would not agree with Mr Simpson's categorisation
in that respect of our performance as having been only "mediocre"
because the aim was achieved and I think I would be very robust
about that. The second aim was to maintain NATO's solidarity and
in a sense that is two sides of the same coin because it was absolutely
essential that NATO stuck together and did not falter and, equally,
that Milosevic could see that NATO was not faltering and was absolutely
determined to see this through to the end. So that was our second
aim in our media operation. Our third was to consider the morale
of our own forces and to make sure our own forces were kept informed
of what was going on and they understood (in respect of the troops
in Macedonia) what was happening, why they were waiting, what
was going on. That was really three-fold.
813. How did you do that last bit?
(Ms Muirhead) Through the use of internal communications
to keep our forces up to speed with what was happening via visits
to the troops telling them what was going on. Indeed, we also
produced messages from the Secretary of State, George Robertson,
where he produced a couple of videos where he basically sat and
spoke direct to the troops. "I am sitting here in London
but I am talking to and I want you to know what is going on. You
are probably wondering where it is all going to lead to. I do
not know. What I can tell you is X, Y and Z." We sent it
to people so they could receive a message very directly from him.
Of course all the time the Army's, the RAF's and the Navy's internal
channels of communications, where appropriate, were also working
to make sure that their people knew what was happening, why we
were doing certain things and how we were doing them.
814. Were you co-ordinating all of that?
(Ms Muirhead) Yes. I say yes in a slightly hesitant
tone because we were co-ordinating the top level of it. Obviously
anything the Secretary of State did was co-ordinated very firmly
and directed by me or my staff but what we would then do is say
to the Army, "You know what our objectives are, this is what
we need to be able to tell our people, X, Y and Z", and they
had delegated authority, as you would expect them to have to make
sure that the messages were getting down the chain of command.
So, yes, it was an overall umbrella.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) Could I say yes in a less hesitant
way. Under the structure we now have it is part of my role to
pull together both what we are saying on the floor of the House
of Commons and what we are saying in interviews on the Today
programme and press conferences with what the Army and Navy and
Air Force are saying down their own chains of command. There really
should be a consistency between all those messages.
815. Did you know your audience very well, the
journalists from various elements of the media?
(Ms Muirhead) We had a huge number of target audiences,
one of whom you have had here as witnesses today, and certainly
since I started my last job, one of my aims has been to get to
know them as well as I could. Obviously there is a very large
number of journalists out there in the field and you cannot get
to know them all, but we had been making efforts to get to know
them during peace time because I do think that building up the
relationship and that relationship of trust which your previous
witnesses talked about, which is a very important element, is
something that can really only be done in peace time not after
a crisis has started.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) Could I add that the process I referred
to earlier of trying to get better with each successive campaign
is not just a process we do within the Ministry of Defence, but
it is a process we do jointly with senior people from the media,
including some of the people who were here an hour ago. Since
Kosovo we have put a lot of effort into asking them, "How
was it for you? What could we have done to work with you better?"
We shall be doing that after Sierra Leone and after every other
(Ms Muirhead) We did that after operations in Iraq.
816. Did you suspect that some of the journalists
you were meeting on a daily basis were beginning to get fairly
cynical about what they were being told and did some elements
of the media suggest changes to you about the style of presentation?
(Ms Muirhead) I think my answer to both of those is
no. Taking the second first, we operate an open door system. As
far as I am concerned that has always been my policy and the door
is open to journalists. We cannot have them in the main building
for practical reasons, but if they want something they only have
to ask and a lot of the time we are trying to think in advance
of what they might want and what we can therefore provide which
will be to our mutual benefit. Of course in this relationship
we and the media have a different job to do. There is no getting
away from that and it would be naive to suggest otherwise but
I do not think you have to have a relationship of tension with
them. You develop a close relationship so that each side understands
how they operate, what they are all about and what they are doing.
That is the kind of way we were doing it and during the Kosovo
crisis of course we developed our operation in that we tried to
do different things all the time. As one of your previous witness,
Jonathan Marcus, said it wasin some respects I hate to
say thisquite boring. There was not much happening and
there probably is not going to be all that much happening in that
kind of air campaign so it did mean we had to think about what
else we could provide the media with, what other sorts of information
might they be interested in. We had cameos in our press conferences
about the Milosevic regime, about how we conduct certain types
of operations, how things work technically, etcetera, and we did
some of that as background briefing. I accept the criticism that
perhaps we should have done more of the background briefing and
I think that is something we will certainly look at next time.
Yes, we evolved all the time but I do not think I can say that
the journalists and media said, "We do not like the way you
are doing things, change it and do something different."
There was never any suggestion of that at all. I did have a number
of people saying to me they very much appreciated our press conferences
and the fact we were putting up almost every day a Cabinet Minister
and very senior military officer, both of whom were accountable
for the policy and conduct of this operation, to be questioned
and to be asked the hard and difficult questions and we did not
shirk from those hard and difficult questions. Turning briefly
to your first point, I have to say that I did not at any time
in the operation have people saying to me, "We think you
are not telling us the truth", or, "We think you massage
the figures", this, that and the rest. That simply did not
817. Were you surprised at that?
(Ms Muirhead) No, because we were putting an awful
amount of effort into ensuring that we had confidence in what
we were saying.
818. Were you surprised they were not saying
that? That is the question I would have asked them because for
a sizable part of the time people were coming out of Kosovo and
being were interviewed by journalists' colleagues on the ground
in Albania and Macedonia and these people were relating to them
incidents they had seen on the ground of the effects of the bombing
in Kosovo itself. One of the interesting things that came out
on French and Italian television was people were saying that they
had not seen these tanks that had been destroyed and I was rather
mystified that none of our journalists seemed to have been cross-referencing
with their colleagues on the ground in Albania and Macedonia.
Likewise I am rather surprised with the de-briefings that your
intelligence officers must have been giving you from people on
the ground who were coming out of Kosovo and Pristina who had
been attacked and the area around and they must have been telling
you that you were not hitting targets.
(Ms Muirhead) Forgive me, I do not think we were getting
our information on what targets we had struck from refugees.
819. But refugees would be relating stories,
would they not?
(Ms Muirhead) They would be relating stories but how
much credence you put on those stories was a different matter.
That was certainly true if you come to the question of how many
Kosovar Albanians had either gone missing or were likely to have
been killed. That was certainly the case, that stories were coming
out of the theatre which we believed to be exaggerated.
2 Note by witness: I had not discussed with
Jamie Shea personally. MoD's link with NATO prior to the conflict
was the UK Delegation, who were involved in MoD's media handling
preparations including meetings on the video-conferencing link,
and were well aware of our plans. Back