Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820 - 835)



Mr Gapes

  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 briefers—and of course you do—but 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 that.

  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, 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, Sky, CNN.

  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 the campaign.

  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.

Mr Viggers

  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.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 6 July 2000