Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 840 - 848)



  840. Under the heading: "Political Dimension: Key Implications for Defence", it says: "Crime, terrorism and political extremism may increasingly require a military element to the Government response." We have been told in this Committee—and I am bound to say I think we have had conflicting evidence from the Ministry of Defence—about the independence of action of the Chief Constable of the Ministry of Defence Police, and that on the one hand they are completely independent, as with any Home Office police force, but on the other there is evidence that they accept instructions. I was particularly interested in your reference to the fuel disruption last Autumn. You referred to the Chief Constable of the MDP making a speech to the Defence Police Federation in which he talked about protocols which have been worked out with the Home Office police forces. He said: "A more recent and poignant example was that of a request from the 2nd PUS [Permanent Under Secretary] for us to supply police officers on a mutual aid basis during the fuel crisis. I wrote back to the 2nd PUS and told him he could have as many officers as reasonably practicable but he wouldn't be able to use them for the specific role the Home Office had intended." He went on to say, "It has always been a point of great concern that fundamental issues such as where and when we can exercise the power of Constable have taken such a long time to be formally recognised. At last we have the final pieces of the jigsaw in place and, ironically, it is the Armed Forces Bill 2001 which is the vehicle we are using to make these final changes. This will give us the recognised powers . . ." etc. Does this mean, to you, that we do indeed have—if this law goes through—a national police force not accountable to civilians and not independent in its action but subject to the instruction of the military?
  (Ms Linscott) Yes, I think it does mean precisely that, that we do have a non-accountable national police force, technically owned by a senior civil servant at the Department of Defence, technically an agency, accountable only to the Secretary of State for Defence with a committee appointed only by the Secretary of State for Defence, that would quite specifically be used nationally in things like industrial disputes. If I may say so, sir, in a part of that quote which you have, for reasons of time, omitted but which I think is relevant, Chief Constable Boreham said that the Home Office had intended to use MDP officers for "aiding fuel convoys or policing picketed oil refineries". That to me—whether one uses the word "political extremism"— is very clearly a political use of the Ministry of Defence Police which is envisaged here, and yes, it is disturbing that he refers to a Bill before this House as a "vehicle".
  (Mr Geraghty) I think one would say, sir, not only as a journalist and a writer but as a citizen, aware of the vulnerability of the rights in a nation state which enjoys no written constitution as other nations have, I am appalled at the blurring, the encroachment, of a military scale of justice—if I may call it that—and control upon a civilian population. It is Orwellian.

  841. My second point, Chairman, is specifically concerned with Clause 6. In a Parliamentary answer which I had last Monday, 5 February, from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the Minister described to me the procedures under which correspondents are accredited as accompanying British forces in the build-up to potential conflict or in war. The Minister referred to the Ministry of Defence's regulations for correspondents accompanying an operational force. Do those regulations which any journalist—whether a television journalist or another journalist—has to follow give you concern that you subject yourself to the military discipline acts in that way?
  (Mr Geraghty) Yes. I have seen this from both sides of the fence. During the Gulf conflict I was in uniform and for part of that period I was acting as an advisor to journalists. It is a situation which creates intense friction. It is one which creates anger, because, as in the South Atlantic Operation Corporate, journalists who are accredited, working with what are called the "ground rules", which they reluctantly sign up to, then discover that a government back in London is leaking material which they have been told "You will never be allowed to publish". That is one source of friction. The other source of friction has to do with the activities of the correspondent who declines to go along with the ground rules. Robert Fisk was a case in the Gulf War; he would go off and do his own thing anyway. Attempts to control journalists absolutely are doomed absolutely, but what does happen is that the Armed Forces are—and perhaps legitimately should be—able to ensure a fair wind and a fair press as well as the criticism which will come from some partisan correspondents. So there is no clear-cut situation here, you put your money on whichever horse you choose to back and a wise editor will back both horses.

  842. Am I right that it has been generally understood by journalists that if they obtain journalistic material, maybe a film, maybe a notepad, then leave the theatre and go back to their own private dwelling house, if there is indeed to be any investigation or search for that material it will be conducted, everyone thought, by the local Home Office constabulary but maybe by the Ministry of Defence Police under a protocol with the Chief Constable of the Home Office force, but that Clause 6 specifically now gives authority to a Service police force—which might be military police or it might be another Service police force—to do just that? Is that the perception?
  (Mr Gopsill) You are absolutely right, yes.

  843. So in Clause 6, we have a Secretary of State enabling a Service policeman (this is not a judicial officer) to obtain access to excluded material or special procedure material. Then it says that this shall apply to "relevant residential premises". Then it says "relevant residential premises" has the same meaning as in Section 5. In Section 5 we find that "relevant residential premises" means either "a service living accommodation or other premises occupied as a residence (alone or with other persons)", so it might be a hotel, "by (i) a person who is subject to service law", which would certainly apply to a journalist who had signed the relevant agreement with the Ministry of Defence, "or (ii) a person who is suspected of having committed while subject to service law an offence in relation to which the warrant is sought." So a journalist comes home, into his own home, and finds then that a Service policeman on the instructions, within the chain of command, from a commanding officer has the right to enter a private home to remove journalistic material. Does that give you any concern?
  (Mr Gopsill) It does, absolute concern. It also adds a new dimension to a question from Mr Crausby and the discussion that we had that surely everything is answerable to the courts, and it does not really matter who arrests or questions somebody, they are going to be given fair treatment in the court. There is the question of the handling of evidence, there is the question of respecting confidentially held information and the question of processing evidence. After all, it may not be that in such a case as Mr Key describes the potential prosecution is of the journalist, it may be of some contact or somebody he has had information from and all the journalist would be, in the eyes of the law, would be a witness. For that you can have Military Police coming into your home and taking material. Yes, we take it extremely seriously. It is not just a matter of how it ends up in the court, it is a matter of the fairness in the process of getting there.

  Mr Randall: I was wondering whether you think that there should be different provisions for journalists working under, if you like, war conditions—in action—or not? Do you think that the truth should be out?


  844. Can I just come in on that? I am particularly interested because Mr Geraghty has actually served in military service and, obviously, has now been a journalist in the front line. I am particularly interested, backing up Mr Randall's question, in whether you feel that the balance is about right and is as good as you can achieve or whether there are aspects of this Bill that will tip it too far away from the media's interest?
  (Mr Geraghty) It is a shifting dynamic process, unfortunately. The journalist wants a story, his news editor is pressuring the journalist in the field to produce the maximum degree of excitement, the journalist might see one small part of a military operation in which British soldiers throw down their guns and leg it. On the other hand, elsewhere medals—VCs—are being won. If the journalist files copy only in relation to what he has seen, regardless, that is clearly a distorted view and it is an unfair view. So that there has to be some sort of balancing process. That balancing process, ideally, should attach to field censorship or censorship back at headquarters, in that sort of orchestrated armed conflict. The British have been fortunate in the two last major campaigns we have fought in that the South Atlantic was hermetically sealed and controllable in terms of the information flow. Similarly, the Gulf was, to a large extent, sealed off. When you get into a terrorist/guerilla situation—and Sierra Leone is a recent example—then you cannot control the process. You can correct, perhaps, the errors made, and that is why MoD in its wisdom has a very active and highly professional core of its own press officers; it has military reservists, of whom I was one, whose long-standing journalistic expertise is dedicated to maintaining the right sort of balance. I see nothing wrong with that. There are going to be mistakes. We always fight the last war on a fold in the map, as they say, and the next situation never replicates the last.

Mr Keetch

  845. Much of what we have heard this morning is the difference between how the MDP and the military police treat Service personnel, who are, of course, subject to military law as well as to civilian law, and the difference between how they are accountable when they are dealing with civilians as opposed to how Home Office and the Home Department deal with civilians. If one is trying to improve this, if one was trying to actually bring in safeguards how would you suggest we do that? Should there, for example, be a civilian Police Committee for the Ministry of Defence Police?
  (Ms Linscott) If I may answer that, I think the answer is, yes. One always hesitates to recommend another committee, but it is very hard to see that if there is to be an extended civilian role for MDP and working more alongside the Home Office Police how that can otherwise be governed without some form of standing committee, which would either be in overall control of whatever exercise is going on, or at least to which complaints and recommendations could be made. I know there is a possibility of ad hoc committees, if you have a big operation around a base, in which you might get Home Office Police and the MDP acting together. That might be desirable as well. It is very difficult to see how things could be governed without any form of accountability or without a new body. Very, very reluctantly I say, yes—to improve Part IV of this Bill—that a new body should be added to it.

  846. If that body were added would that allay some of the fears or all of the fears?
  (Ms Linscott) Only some.

  847. Only some.
  (Mr Geraghty) Suck it and see. We would have to see how accountable the new reorganised Ministry of Defence Police was. There is another nostrum, which I have already mentioned, that is the use of special constable status for Ministry of Defence Police off base, of course by agreement with the local Chief Constable. That would clearly define the limited MDP powers and place them directly and constitutionally under the control of the Home Department Force.
  (Mr Gopsill) That would be in definite circumstances, such as civil emergencies, and so on.


  848. Can I thank you very much. You certainly raised some very interesting and important issues for our consideration. Thank you very much, indeed, for staying longer than the time proposed. Thank you for your time. I know we will discuss the issues which you raised this morning.
  (Mr Gopsill) We would like to thank you for having us along to give evidence.

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