Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 800 - 819)

WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2000

MISS OONA MUIRHEAD AND MR JOHN PITT-BROOKE

  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.[2] 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 issues.

Chairman

  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.

Mr Gapes

  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.

Mr Hancock

  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 hierarchy.

  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.

Mr Hancock

  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.

Mr Viggers

  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.

Chairman

  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 identified—and I can only talk about the last two and a bit years—in 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.

Mr Hancock

  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 campaign.
  (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 was—in some respects I hate to say this—quite 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 happen.

  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


 
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