Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820
WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2000
820. Can I ask you some questions relating to
the evidence before your own.
(Ms Muirhead) Of course.
821. Both Mark Urban and Jonathan Marcus said
that they would have liked to have had more contact and more presentations
from military personnel and the example of the United States was
given. Are you going to respond to that suggestion?
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) That is a statement that I have heard
many times but, as Oona said earlier, we had an open door and
they need only have asked and we stand ready to provide technical
briefings on any issue which is brought to us collectively by
the media or by individuals in the media. We will do the very
best that we can. It is particularly relevant in the context that
was set out earlier about the reduced number of defence correspondents
where the amount of technical expertise out there is not very
high. So if we are giving daily press conferences which are aimed
at a very wide audience indeed we need to flesh that out with
more technical detail. It was said we did that insufficiently
during the Kosovo campaign. I was not there but my sense is we
did quite a lot of it and stood ready to do more and certainly
in future we are prepared to provide technical briefings within
the constraints of security and what have you on whatever we are
asked to do.
(Ms Muirhead) Can I add to that before you follow
up because I think it might help to clarify. I do not regret and
I think we were absolutely right to have press conferences which
had a minister and very senior military officer at them. Although
Mark Urban slightly criticised it at one point he then went on
at another point to say the Brits' briefings said we had not dropped
our bombs, the Pentagon did not. I could suggest that perhaps
if the Pentagon had done it our way you might have got a similar
sort of response from them. I do not know. All I am saying is
you cannot have it both ways. We put up a Cabinet minister and
a very senior military officer because they were the people and
they therefore had to answer questions and either say, "No,
I do not know the answer", or, "I think the answer is
X", or whatever, and they were there to give as much information
as they could subject to the security constraints.
822. Can I probe this a little bit because you
both seem to be quite defensive about the suggestion that we should
have serving military personnel doing the presentation or speaking
to the journalists apart from having the top person. Is this a
question of professional integrity or is it more a question that
you do not believe that the political system in this country should
change, that it is a matter of political control over the military?
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) It is neither of those.
(Ms Muirhead) No, it is not and I was going to go
on to say I think we were absolutely right to do the press conferences.
That does not mean that is all you do and this is where your military
briefers come in. After all, we rely on military briefers. In
theatre you are never going to have anything other than a military
briefer because then you are at the operational level or tactical
level. When you are talking, as we were during the air campaign,
about issues which are rather more strategic and policy related
it is right to have your press conferences with the minister and
a senior military officer. However, what I was going to go on
and say is that does not mean you cannot have the others. We had
briefings by the Assistant Chief of Air Staff. We had briefings
by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments). The Director
of Public Relations RAF was briefing journalists all the time.
We had a military Wing Commander or whatever he was, I cannot
remember what rank, at our press briefings as well doing more
technical professional type of briefings. They are an integral
part of the system but at a different level.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) I just say it is simply not true
this suggestion that representatives of the armed forces are somehow
silenced in this process. They play a full part in what is one
team. Yesterday on the Today programme the Chief of Joint
Operations Admiral Garnet was interviewed on the record. There
were military people speaking as spokesmen from Sierra Leone last
night. It happens all the time.
(Ms Muirhead) Indeed.
823. Can I put it to you that perhaps there
was a sensitivity about the particular issue of ground forces
that might have made the questioning quite difficult on some occasions
and it might have been thought politically that it was wiser that
it was politicians who dealt with those matters?
(Ms Muirhead) I think it is a different question in
a sense. It is addressing a different issue. One is whether you
have military spokesmen and military briefersand of course
you dobut military officers, civil servants and politicians
all have their areas and spheres of responsibility and it is a
minister's responsibility to take policy decisions and therefore
the question of the ground campaign was a question for the minister
as it would have been a policy decision and all the military understood
824. But it would also have had practical matters
which people might have wished to ask such as "If you take
this decision, is it feasible?" Is it possible to fulfil
this policy aspiration and what will be the consequences, etcetera,
(Ms Muirhead) I think any sensible military officer
would say, "I cannot tell you that now because I do not know
what the circumstance are."
825. I have got one more question. The way in
which your press conferences were organised, if you had known
at the start of this that you were going to have to go on for
78 days, would you have done it differently?
(Ms Muirhead) No.
826. That is very clear. In your memorandum
you say the capabilities for influencing certain sections of the
conflict are under review. Does that mean that you do not feel
you did it very well or NATO did not do it very well? That is
what was said by our journalist speakers earlier.
(Ms Muirhead) I think that probably we did not get
to the Serb audience as much as we would have liked. I am not
sure how much of a difference it would have made but we tried
to do what we could. Our Internet site was, I guess, our main
effort apart from hoping that Serbs would see the press conferences
and therefore those press conferences included messages that were
directly aimed at the Serb population in Serbia. In the same way
we included messages that were directly aimed at Kosovar Albanians
whether in Kosovo or the refugee camps. Our web site was a joint
Foreign Office/Ministry of Defence web site and we had bits of
it which were translated into Serbo-Croat so that it would make
it easier and more accessible to the people of Serbia and we were
always conscious that they were a very important target audience
but the difficulty is technically to know how to reach them and
I think it is a technical issue of the means of actually getting
the message to the audience.
827. So you had the Internet. What kind of listenership
was there with the BBC World Service or what about Sky? What were
the media by which you were able to influence Serb public opinion?
(Ms Muirhead) As I say, I think largely our Internet
which was direct to the Serb population and then indirectly via
those media outlets which reached into Serbia.
828. Which were?
(Ms Muirhead) As you have suggested, the BBC World,
829. Were there any attempts by Serbia to jam
these? Maybe it is not technically possible to jam.
(Ms Muirhead) If you have a satellite which takes
Sky you have a satellite which receives Sky.
830. Have you any idea how many people had access
in theory to one or more.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) The figure we have is 50,000 hits
for the Ministry of Defence Internet site from within Serbia during
831. In the last Election the Labour Party had
a rebuttal team, not a political assassination squad. How would
you organise counter Serb propaganda if somebody came out with
outrageously incorrect statements? What was the mechanism within
NATO or the MoD to put out a rebuttal?
(Miss Muirhead) What we had in the Ministry of Defence
was a number of augmentees whose function it was to look at what
was appearing in the media so that we knew what the media was
saying and what we had to respond to. So, for example, I think
the memorandum tells you that we produced every morning a summary
of what was in the press that day which gave us the opportunity
of saying, "Such and such commentator has said X, Y and Z
and we know that to be untrue. Why don't we get them in for a
briefings and demonstrate (providing we have the evidence) what
they are saying is incorrect factually." We also had another
set of rota-ed augmentees looking at the main broadcast channels
CNN, Sky, BBC, ITV, etcetera, the national broadcast channels,
and the key international ones, and there again we were looking
at that in order to see whether there were any incorrect facts
emerging which we needed to take action to correct but the correction
of any inaccuracies was done through the same mechanism as anything
else. It was either through the press conference or briefing sessions
or picking up the telephone and talking to either the journalist
or the media organisation.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) This is a very manpower intensive
business and it requires a lot of people to read all this material,
to sift it, to decide what we are going to challenge and to decide
how we are going to challenge it and to do that in real time overnight.
But it is something we have got to do and we are determined to
have the resources available next time to make this really central
to our approach.
832. One specific question, did the MoD change
its media operation as a result of any specific complaints from
any network at all?
(Ms Muirhead) No, we did not. We did discuss what
we were going to do and how we were going to go about it with
the key media channels beforehand. For example, on the timing
of the press conference and whether we should hold a press conference
we actually did discuss that with both the broadcast and print
media beforehand and the timing of it in particular, as I say,
both whether we should do it, to which the answer was yes we want
you to hold press conferences and, secondly, the timing of it,
we determined as 11.30 in the morning for two key reasons. That
was, firstly, to allow us to get information on what had happened
overnight from the chain of command, test it and turn it into
something that could be used at a press conference and that takes
a bit of time, particularly the testing of it. Secondly, it was
to suit the deadlines of both the broadcasters, who wanted to
have it in time for them to be able to turn it round for their
lunchtime news, and the print media who wanted to be able to go
off and write their key stories and then spend the afternoon researching
other things as well. That was very much done in consultation
with the media side and we never had any suggestion, I was never
given any suggestion during the course of the campaign, that we
should change it. As I say, these things were adjusted and were
things we did during the course of the campaign because either
we thought about it or because the media side asked us whether
we would do it.
833. Some questions about resources. Who is
your top level budget holder?
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) The Vice Chief of Defence Staff.
834. And have you had discussions or do you
propose to have discussions about ensuring that you have sufficient
resources for the changes that you have put to us?
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) Yes, I have. And I think there is
a recognition within the Department that this is a very high priority,
and that we will not be caught out, and that there shall not be
a problem of resourcing which will prevent us from doing it. However,
these are not very great sums of money and most of the changes
I described earlier involved the transferring away from other
duties of a number of people involved in the process of augmentation.
So in terms of the defence budget this is not an issue but it
is an issue in terms of the transfer of money within the defence
budget. In defence terms we are not talking about huge sums of
money at all.
835. In strengthening your negotiating position
may I put to you a rhetorical question. A critic might say, hearing
what you have said this afternoon, that the MoD is not so much
in a constant process of learning over public relations as in
a constant process of being surprised. It really does not have
the training and personnel, etcetera, available. On that subject
have you access to all the necessary skills in languages that
you needed? Have you thought through all the possible permutations
of languages you might need if you have to bid for resources for
that? Have you access to all the necessary Internet and e-mail
procedures because it does strike me that 50,000 hits during the
campaign in Serbia is not a great number at all, and it may well
be that you needed more resources to advertise your Internet availability.
(Mr Pitt-Brooke) On the languages, we would very much
look to the Foreign Office for support on that and that that would
be forthcoming. In terms of our Internet operation, it is growing
both in sophistication and in terms of people we have working
on it all the time, and I am confident that next time we would
indeed be able to very much improve our ability to monitor all
the key web sites and to feed that back in and to use our own
web site much more aggressively.
Chairman: Thank you very much. That was
very helpful. If there is any other surge of enthusiasm to send
us more information we would be more than delighted to receive
it. Thank you.