Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 704-719)


2 JULY 2003

  Q704  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming. Your profession suffered grievously in the campaign and a heavy price was paid for our daily read or watching. We do find journalists occasionally—only occasionally—irritating. I think the sacrifice made by so many people has to be properly remembered and commended. We are perhaps one-third of the way through our inquiry into the lessons of Iraq and, as with previous inquiries, the lessons of Kosovo, the lessons of the previous Gulf War and the lessons of the Falklands, we really felt that we needed to see whether the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and journalists had improved, whether there were major problems, as there certainly were in the Falklands war, to see whether we have learned lessons in terms of expressing the views of the military, allowing the media to represent fairly what they have seen and heard. We hope this will be an instructive session. We have so many questions. I would like to finish at 12. I think there are about 12 questions, each of which has three or four parts. I am not a mathematician, but please do not feel compulsion to answer; you will have to try to regulate the amount of time you allow each other. I will try, but you are far better at it than I. I hope we do not have the repercussions we had in our inquiry into Kosovo, when we almost had to separate physically two of the BBC correspondents, in a famous incident just over there. Thank you once again. Could you briefly tell us what role you were undertaking during the conflict.

  Mr Thompson: I am the odd one out here. I am the only unilateral on this panel, or maverick as we call them; in other words, not embedded. I certainly did that out of choice—and I will explain more of that later. I went across the border on Saturday 22 March from Northern Kuwait, not through the formal border post, because they would not let us through, but through a hole in the fence with my team and made my way into Southern Iraq, and immediately managed to go live from the village of Safwãn where the first villagers were making their first feelings known to British Troops on the ground there. I then moved on and stayed pretty much with elements of the Desert Rats 7th Armoured Brigade for the first fortnight, moving around different units which I informally attached myself to, partly for security reasons—because my old friend and colleague Terry Lloyd had got killed just a couple of miles from where I was: he had turned right and I had turned left, pretty much within a few hours of each other, and that is how these things often go, and so I think security was more of an issue. But we were self-contained, self-reliant. We did not have to rely on the military for fuel, water, food, communication or anything like that. We stayed around them more closely mainly for security and for information. As Basra began to fall and more journalists started to pour into Southern Iraq, I made the decision to move north to Baghdad and I moved in two civilian vehicles. There were four of us who moved from our position in Southern Iraq, the 600 kilometre drive up to the outskirts of Baghdad and eventually into Central Baghdad.

  Q705  Chairman: You were accredited, then. It was not just that you came off the streets and wandered round.

  Mr Thompson: Accredited? I had a pass of some sort from somebody.

  Q706  Chairman: How would the terminology differ between your unattached role and those who simply came along without any authorisation, moving wherever they wanted to?

  Mr Thompson: I did not have an awful lot of authorisation, but, I mean, I did not get asked a lot of questions about that. I used the old-fashioned journalistic skills of going and asking people if it was okay, and hopefully becoming useful or friendly towards them so they would take us under their wing where we needed. But we certainly did not have the formality of the passes, the training and so on,

  Q707  Chairman: How would one designate those who were totally unattached and totally unaccredited? What phraseology would you use?

  Mr Thompson: I do not think there was anybody totally unattached. Most people would have had to have got some basic pass from the Kuwaiti authorities or from the coalition media headquarters in Kuwait City. So most of us had a basic pass. I think most of the people who were travelling unilaterally would have had at least that. It did not help us get across the border and it did not help a lot of people when they came into contact with the coalition forces, who put them in trucks and shipped them back across the border to Kuwait. So it was a matter of: take your best chances really.

  Q708  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Neely.

  Mr Neely: I was embedded with 42 Commando, Royal Marines. I arrived with them in Kuwait on 13 March and stayed with them until 11 April. They were tasked to go initially into the Al Faw peninsula and after that went to Um Qasr and then to Basra. We were, as a group, supposed to go in with the main invading force on the night of Thursday 20 March, but a helicopter crash meant that the unit I was with was delayed until Friday 21 March and that is when we first went into Iraq with them, and, as I say, I stayed with them through the Al Faw, Um Qasr and the attack on Basra.

  Q709  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Hewitt.

  Mr Hewitt: I am also slightly the odd person out because I was not with British forces at all, I was embedded with the American 3rd Infantry Division, part of their 3rd Brigade with a tank company. I joined them in Kuwait and spent a week out in the desert with them. We were part of that huge formation that crossed the border at the outset of the war. We went up via Nasiriyah, Samãwah, Kabalã, all the way up into Baghdad, and I stayed with that unit until about 11 April, when I left Iraq. I was with that unit for pretty much the whole time and witnessed some of the fighting—which I believe was something more intense probably than reported—on the outskirts of Baghdad.

  Q710  Chairman: Thank you. Ms Gillan.

  Ms Gillan: I was also embedded, with D Squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment, a frontline reconnaissance squadron. We were mostly west of Basra, although a lot of the time was spent in the desert, first of all securing the oil wells and then working alongside other regiments, battling against people on motorcycles with RPGs and everything else. We moved up to Ad Dayr and the regiment then moved up to Amãrah—I think they are due to come back today actually—but I did not proceed up to Amãrah because at that point it did not look as if it would hold that much interest for us when Baghdad was falling. So I came back.

  Q711  Chairman: Thank you. A difficult question to answer: I have been monitoring with the British Army now for 30 years and it is quite difficult to dislike the British soldier. Quite the reverse: the closer you are, the more admiration you have, and in some ways you empathise with them and try to serve their interests. It is quite difficult to be objective. Maybe the officers are not quite so cosy and cuddly as the squaddies. Did you find that? Especially if people were firing at you, how would this affect your journalistic integrity? Was there any clash? What kind of personal thinking did you have to do about whether the closeness and the proximity to them meant that it was difficult to write about things that were quite nasty affecting them? Do you think it had an impact on the professional journalist?

  Ms Gillan: You are right, when you are embedded, particularly with me being with such an incredibly small squadron of just 105 people, when you are living inside their vehicles, travelling with them, relying on them for food and water and electricity, you doss down, get your sleeping back out, roll it down beside them—so myself with 105 men—you do become incredibly close. The people you talk to, you witness their fears, frustrations, boredom. Also, with the regiment that I was with there was an A10 attack, a blue-on-blue attack, in which one of the soldiers died and four of them were injured. Apart from writing about that I also went through the emotions of it. A few days later a Scimitar overturned in a ditch and one man was killed and another later succumbed to his injuries. And I do think that you cannot help but become close to the subject that you are living with because ultimately you are living there. I felt personally that the type of journalism I was doing was that kind of close portrayal of life in a war, life in the frontline, and what the soldiers' life was like. It did not inhibit me too much that closeness. But I think things would have been quite different if it had been the opposite way round, say with a blue-on-blue attack and I had come to know of something that they had done wrong. Then I always felt that would come the time at which I would have to make a choice: Would I remain embedded or not? That did not happen to me, I did not have to make that choice, but I think that were it to happen you probably are too close and you need to walk away.

  Q712  Syd Rapson: We were lucky, yesterday we went to Cottemore and met the Harrier pilots and talked to them. They did mention that when a journalist from a newspaper was with them he would put his copy on the noticeboard the next day as direct accountability for his words written. The military were very aware of that, so that they were all geared up to read the words and to respond. That must have put, would put, a lot of pressure on a journalist not to exaggerate perhaps a story to an extent which would make it more interesting but only to restrict it to the bare facts.

  Ms Gillan: The situation was quite different for us. We did not have the comfort and privilege of being in an air base where you would see your story the next day. We were all of us in the desert, they did not really sell The Guardian there, so it took a few days before they would see our copy. But you are aware of that, you are aware that ultimately they will see the copy. Actually, they saw my copy every single day because obviously—and this is a subject we will discuss later—my copy was censored, so they knew what was coming in the paper anyway.

  Q713  Chairman: So you do not think many people read The Guardian out there, otherwise your reception might have been rather less tolerant. I think I would have been rather intolerant if I were a Guardian reader—no reflection on your writing whatsoever. Mr Hewitt.

  Mr Hewitt: There is a powerful bond between yourself and the unit you are travelling with. It is unavoidable. The principle reason is you are dependent on them for your safety. When you come under attack—and certainly we came under attack by people with rocket-propelled grenades on the outskirts of Baghdad—you share that experience with the people you are travelling with. If they escape and you escape, there is in the evening almost a sense of euphoria: your life has been on the line and somehow you have escaped. But when it came to editing, I always edited in public, in the sense that we were editing from the back of a Humvee, people would crowd around, and each time before I edited I reminded myself that back in this country this was a controversial war, there were different opinions and I would have no credibility if in the end I forgot that. So I would try to separate myself in my mental thinking from what I was seeing, the relationships I had built up, and the way I would report the story. I did that every day quite deliberately because I knew I was building up some friendships, and I did, and I was able on, I think, 6 or 7 April to talk about the number of civilian casualties that I was seeing were being caused in the fighting as we came into Baghdad. That was causing some unease amongst the people in the tank unit that I was with and I wanted certainly to report that, unless this conflict wound up quickly, it would become harder and harder after the war to convince ordinary Iraqis that this was being done on their behalf. If you like, I had a kind of chip in my brain on which I relied to remind myself, in terms of broadcasting to the British public, that even though, yes, undoubtedly I got on well with some of the people I was with, ultimately I had a responsibility above that. The big question for me—and fortunately I did not have to answer it, so it becomes therefore something of a hypothetical—was, say my unit had been involved in an attack on a school bus by mistake and there had been real serious casualties, would I, knowing that I would have to continue my journey with this tank unit, have reported it as robustly as I would report any other story? The answer is I hope so. But I suspect that all of us who were embedded ultimately knew that there could come a point when there was something of a clash between your loyalty to tell what you saw and your loyalty to the people with whom you were sharing this experience.

  Mr Neely: As Gavin says, I think it is inevitable that a bond develops. How could it not in a situation of extreme danger like that? But I think our job as journalists is to maintain distance, objectivity, that when it comes to it you will write as truthfully and objectively as you can, no matter how close the personal bond is with the people you are with. For me the key bond or the key link, I suppose, was not so much did we trust the people that we were with, because militarially I did, but did the commanding officer of the unit I was with trust me. I felt within 48 hours of arriving there he had made a gesture which began that process; in other words, he had briefed me and the other three journalists I was with of the entire battle plan, not just of 42 Commando, Royal Marines, but of 40 Commando who were 20 miles or so away and, indeed, the big picture of how the war would go. He made it very clear that what he had just done was a risk. He said, "What are you going to do with the notes you have taken?" and I rather naively said, "I'm going to hide them." He said, "Well, no, you are not actually because there are secrets in there. You are going to digest what you have written down and then I will take them from you and I will burn them." I felt within 48 hours he had made a gesture which was an important one, especially as, as I understood it, he was very sceptical at having a media unit embedded with him in the first place. I think in fact he did not want one. I think the MOD leaned on him and he got us. But we developed a bond, I think, a bond of trust, and everything I think went well. In fact, it was tested on that first night, when there was a huge setback when there was a helicopter crash in which eight British and four American servicemen were killed.

  Mr Thompson: I think most of us have probably been fairly impressed with the level of reporting, the quality of reporting, the quality of objectivity, perhaps more so. I think everybody went out this time, probably reminded by the editors but also reminded by their colleagues, not to get into a them and us, not to get into a friend and foe, not to be we and them, but to try to keep that demarcation and I think that was maintained 98%/99% of the time. Occasionally people slipped—you know, "we came under fire" suggesting us, the reporter and the unit people were with, but generally I thought people managed to keep that bit of distance while not betraying the trust of those you were with—and I moved through several different units and had to build that trust several times, both with the British forces and then with the US Marine Corps, who I lighted upon and fell upon their mercy later in the piece in Baghdad. I do not think it is that hard. I find in the television, like Gavin and Bill would have done, that actually you become almost a travelling charade, a cabaret, a part of the entertainment. Part of the reason the commanding officers I was around liked having us along was they said, "You are very good for morale. You are a good diversion, particularly when things are going slowly." So we did not discourage people coming around and listening to the live broadcasts or watching the editing or re-running the pieces for them, and I certainly felt no concerns about what I was saying. If they questioned us about things, I would ask them, "Am I telling the truth or not? You may not like everything you are hearing but is it wrong? Tell me if it is wrong factually, but do not criticise me if it is correct but you just do not like it." The other thing of which I was also very aware was that quite clearly all these troops' families were watching every second of the day back home here, in Germany, Cyprus or wherever it was, and in a way you certainly feel responsible to them to be accurate and, I suppose, positive if anything, to try not to be negative about stuff if you do not have to be. I mean, if it is the truth of what has unfolded that day, tell it as it is but do not tell it negatively if you do not have to, because, if you think of your own wife and family back home, the soldiers have the same.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q714  Mr Roy: Could I ask what changes, if any, you saw in the attitude of the troops themselves as the conflict carried forward?—especially in relation to their attitude towards the enemy, the Iraqi people, journalists or, indeed, the war itself.

  Ms Gillan: In relation to the troops: excitement at crossing the border; boredom at being stuck for a couple of days with nothing to do; frustration; fear—there were a number of battles in which they were involved and then, of course, the blue-on-blue which we talked about. Again, the accident that I told you about impacted greatly on the soldiers and, following on from that, the regiment had two days in a camp dubbed "slipper city" because it is where you could take off your horrible black boots—not desert boots, black boots——

  Q715  Mr Roy: I will come to that later.

  Ms Gillan: —and put your flip-flops on and kick back for a couple of days, because they obviously needed that time to grieve and they needed time to recover. Following on from that was fear again about going back in, expecting it to be the same situation, with heavy incoming artillery, people on motorbikes with RPGs; going into a town expecting there to be street-to-street fighting, going into the town with not a shot fired, to be greeted by everybody in the town waving their hands and shouting, "Great British! Great British!" In terms of their attitude to the Iraqis, it is the same as their attitude to everybody else: they are just squaddies. They call them "choggies". They are just seen as ordinary people. You did not come close, in terms of close-hand combat, so the only Iraqis that we really saw were the ones who were crowding around asking for water. The other ones that they were obviously fighting were in either their own hides or in their own equivalent tanks and vehicles. So the enemy remained that distant thing of the enemy; we never saw the enemy close at hand. Their attitude to the Iraqis that they saw was initially one of great fun—it seemed to them that they had come in and liberated these people. A couple of days later, it was just boredom—and annoyance because you cannot move: they crowd round you all the time asking for water and everything else. This was not the officers' attitude, this was just the general soldiers' attitude.

  Mr Hewitt: There is no doubt in my mind that the American unit that I was with expected that they would be treated as liberators when they crossed the border. They were not certain to the extent of it, but they felt they would get a good reception. Interestingly, also, although slightly to the side of what you have asked, we were part of that very first tank column that pushed all the way up to Nasariyah and we were very close to the front of that column. I remember the Captain saying, "We want you close to the front of this column"—we thought it was rather too far up front—"the main reason being because we are going to take, on the first night, Tallil Airbase and that is a place with a lot of bunkers." He said, "We want you close because we need you to verify the weapons of mass destruction." That was the kind of mind-set, that we would get on with the job very, very quickly. As the unit went up the road towards Baghdad, there was no question the mood changed. I think the first time it changed was about three/four days into the war when there was this very severe sandstorm. During the sandstorm our unit was attacked by these so-called Fedeyeen, Saddam's Fedeyeen. They just came out of the sand. They fired rocket-propelled grenades; they were not successful. Some of the weapons jammed with the American soldiers who I was with; they were able in the end to repel the Iraqis and kill some of the Iraqis. From that moment onwards, they thought, "This is going to be slightly different from how we imagined." You will recall that probably a week into the conflict—I might be slightly inaccurate in that—on the highway on which we were travelling there was a suicide attack at a checkpoint. I can remember that very well because we were using the road that day and that news just crackled over the radios, and I think already there was a sense that there was far more hostility from sections of the Iraqi population than they had expected. I think partly as a result of that, we, in a sense, became more enclosed, more in a bubble. There was less contact between us and ordinary Iraqis. There was not a huge amount to start with, but there was very much a sense that anybody who approached the column who could not immediately be identified was a potential target—and you are dealing with 18/19-year olds and they have got into their minds by this stage: "There is a lot of hostility out there." I think that continued, obviously, once the unit got into Baghdad, the sense of "Who's friend? Who's foe?" and: "This car coming down the central reservation, they should not be out on the streets. We dropped leaflets beforehand"—this is their argument—"saying Iraqis should stay in their houses, so why are they out on the streets?" It became a much more complex operation—and I think complex for commanders. Commanders had to convey to their troops: "Look, anybody could be out there wanting to set off a bomb or attack." At the same time, they did not want every civilian to be treated as hostile. In answer to your question, my view is that the fairly straightforward approach with which the unit began the campaign became infinitely more complicated, and by the time they got into Baghdad I think that sense of easy optimism . . . Although on occasions, both in Karbalã and Baghdad, my unit was greeted almost as liberators, there was never that sort of sense of euphoria that the Americans and British have had in previous wars. That was never there.

  Mr Neely: I think it broke down into two phases: war fighting and peacekeeping. I suppose in the war fighting phase the men that I was with felt frustrated: highly trained, waiting for a big scrap and the Iraqis in fact, most of them, took off their uniforms and ran away. I know a lot of ordinary grunts on the ground felt frustrated by that. They wanted to fight. They wanted to prove how good they were. Apart from the very first day that they were there, the Friday, on the Al Faw peninsula, when they let off a lot of ammunition, they never really had a chance, they felt, to prove that. There was also frustration about various other things. There was a helicopter crash on the first night, which delayed them. When we eventually flew into Iraq, we landed a kilometre further north than we were supposed to. That frustrated them: because they were further north, we all had to trek back. A lot of frustration. At the end of it, of course, relief that of the 740 men of 42 Commando, Royal Marines, not a single man was lost in combat. Obviously there were people lost in Kuwait, in that crash before they ever invaded Iraq, but obviously pleased that all of their guys came back. I mean, there were a couple of times obviously when they were afraid, the initial invasion. What were they afraid of? Well, frankly, they were afraid primarily of American pilots. They all made that perfectly clear. One of them called them "The angels on our shoulder" and he did not mean it kindly. That was exacerbated when the helicopter went down, piloted by an American. They all felt that these were—once again, the word was used repeatedly—"cowboys". The second thing they were afraid of was landmines, because the Al Faw peninsula is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, dating back from Iran/Iraq. They were worried that, even if the helicopter landed safely, as soon as they got out onto the salt flats the mines would go up. So that was a worry, even apart from the enemy who they did not meet in sufficient numbers. The second phase was peacekeeping. They were looking forward to that because they knew they were good at it. They felt that their experience in Northern Ireland and their training gave them something which the American troops did not have. They did it twice while I was there, in Um Qasr and then again in Basra. They felt they did it well. The one thing they were worried about in meeting ordinary Iraqis was that they knew a lot of the regulars had taken off their uniforms—they knew the Fedeyeen was a force; we had all been warned about the possibility of suicide bombers, of prisoners giving themselves up and then suddenly reaching below their clothing and pulling a suicide belt—so there was probably more worry about what an ordinary Iraqi civilian represented than there might have been in other conflicts. I am not sure, because I was not embedded with British military in other conflicts, but that was my impression.

  Mr Thompson: The British troops I met as soon as I got across the border were excited, apprehensive and fairly confident about what they were going to be doing, and we all joked abut how we would hopefully be in the Sheraton in Basra sipping cold beers, after the dry months in booze-free Kuwait, within three days. I mean, there was no doubt about it: everybody thought they were going to push through and we would be in Basra in no time at all. It quickly changed, partly because the weather did undoubtedly cause problems that first weekend and, secondly, because it became apparent very quickly that, far from the tank battles they had envisaged or probably hoped they would have—as Bill was saying, there was no doubt they hoped to have a good old-fashioned battle out there and prove that they were the best troops in the world—they got bogged down in urban guerilla warfare very quickly around Basra and had to change tactics, had to rethink what they were doing, and clearly decided to camp out on the outskirts of Basra and bide their time. So it changed into a very different time-scale, a very different type of war, which, for a lot of the troops not right on the frontline, proved frustrating: they wondered what was going on, and the doubts that I think they had all come in with about the case for war not being clearly made started to eat away at them. Time and time again British troops would come to my team and say, "Why aren't the British behind us?" and we would have to say, "Well, it is a political debate. It is not about you. Once you are committed, the British will support you," but they clearly felt that it was aimed at them.

  Q716  Mr Roy: Those doubts started from the doubts being raised—

  Mr Thompson: By their families, by the debate going on back home. They were all well aware, they were very well aware, of the political debate going on and it had got too much.

  Q717  Mr Roy: That had a direct consequence on their morale.

  Mr Thompson: It pretty much got to every man jack out in the field. They needed telling that they were out there for a good cause. Those on the frontline felt they were doing a job by getting their way into Basra and completing a mission there once they actually got involved in conflict. For a lot of those behind, I went out with units who very quickly went out into the small towns and villages to meet Iraqis and to do a positive hearts-and-minds job, and a lot of them started to say, "Now we know why we are here. Look at these poor people who have been repressed by Saddam." It clearly gave them a justification for being where they were.

  Q718  Mr Roy: On the morale issue of both the troops and families at home, one of the most frustrating things for me as a Member of Parliament was speaking to some of the families at home, who were extremely annoyed to read about the shortages in equipment, for example. They would say to me, "If you think they are doing a good job, why are you not supplying them with the best equipment on time?" because they were seeing it on the television as well. Indeed, one of the phrases that struck me in the past couple of weeks was when we were told that people were in theatre wearing "flip-flops, trainers and even Iraqi boots". When that was said, I asked for it to be repeated, to make sure, and he said, "Yes, wearing flip-flops, trainers and sometimes even Iraqi boots." Did anyone see evidence of that?

  Mr Thompson: The only severe concern I had about shortage of equipment . . . Having covered quite a number of wars before, there is always a shortage of equipment, and, to be honest, our troops are better equipped than most: I have seen whole battle groups go into battle in Africa in flip-flops, so I would not be unduly concerned about it. The one thing that did worry me was not the fact that they did not all have desert fatigues and did not all have the right boots but I saw people being put on point-duty or checkpoints, on roadblock checkpoints and on patrol, without body armour. They were genuinely jealous and envious of our body armour, with which we had been supplied.

  Q719  Mr Roy: You are telling me that you were better equipped.

  Mr Thompson: Yes.

  Ms Gillan: Definitely.

  Mr Thompson: In terms of body armour, quite a few. I saw some, you know, a couple of weeks in, still being sent out on duty outside a camp border, to guard a camp or a roadblock without body armour. That is the only thing that I have to say. Toilet rolls, the wrong boots and so on, I think soldiers always like to moan about that, they moaned a bit to us. I would not take that too seriously, but lack of body armour I would.

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 4 November 2003