Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740-759)

MS AUDREY GILLAN, MR GAVIN HEWITT, MR BILL NEELY AND MR JEREMY THOMPSON

2 JULY 2003

  Q740  Mr Howarth: Can I just take you back to the plan for the post-military operation? Mr Hewitt, you suggest that the Americans were expecting that the remnants of the Iraqi authorities would take over. That certainly squares entirely with what we were told in Washington in February; that the guys who were running the utilities, if they remained in place, were going to take over. Quite clearly that did not happen. Did you discuss in your separate units what the transition arrangements were going to be; whether there was a clear game-plan to secure the place and then was there a plan to bring in the agencies to come and do the humanitarian work? That is what we were expecting and it just did not seem to happen.

  Mr Hewitt: The only thing I hesitate on is in the sense that when you are with a tank company which is part of a brigade and part of a division you do not necessarily know the whole plan.

  Q741  Mr Howarth: But you had these discussions and briefings with the General, General Blunt?

  Mr Hewitt: Yes, absolutely.

  Q742  Mr Howarth: Did he mention any of this at any point?

  Mr Hewitt: No. As I say, I have forgotten which day the statue came down—I think it might have been Tuesday—

  Mr Thompson: The 9th.

  Mr Hewitt: By the end of that week I was talking to him and we kind of went back over the campaign of the 21 days in some detail, and at that stage there was not the level of concern there clearly now is as regards putting together a structure that provides security. Certainly in terms of the conversations within the tank company that I was travelling with and reporting from, there was no plan. I can remember we stopped—this is in western Baghdad—at an electricity sub-station (and like most of the city there was no electricity there) and were trying to work out how we could find someone who could open up the sub-station so that at least some element of electricity might be restored. But nobody knew where to find anybody and nobody knew exactly who was in charge of this; people had gone home, they were with their families. This is an impression, so I do not want to be totally conclusive about it, but the impression that I formed, certainly from the unit, was that there was no plan for the post-war Iraq. There were occasional stories about "We are going to bring some food in" and there were, maybe, some trucks that may be coming in from Jordan. However, my commander never said anything to me about "We are going to have the NGOs turning up, we have got to do this, we have got to do that". I think once the government had fallen in Baghdad, once people were in the streets and the old regime seemed to have gone, I formed the impression certainly from a military point of view that that was pretty much as far as the planning had gone, and from that moment on it was reactive. It could be, and this is conjecture on my behalf, that those first crucial days will turn out to be very, very costly days because I think some of the faith that I certainly saw in the streets—people running alongside tanks saying "Thank you, Mr Bush, thank you, Mr Blair"—I only saw for about 24 hours; within 48 hours there were people who were much more concerned about the gunfire at night, concerned about the lack of security, and those early days were very important days, and I suspect history will look at them with some attention.

  Mr Neely: My experience was very different. The Marines that I was with were very concerned that peace-keeping should involve the creation of a local authority and that there should be security not at the point of their gun but, also, through local representatives. I know within hours of going into Um Qasr they were out in the local community looking for Shi-ite clerics, looking for teachers, some of whose names they had. I remember one intelligence officer, in particular, was leading this effort to gather a group of people that initially they could liaise with and who, after a while, they could hand control over to. I think I am right in saying that Um Qasr, in fact, was the first Iraqi town which the British handed control over to the Iraqis. Again, everyone's experience is different but certainly the commanding officer of 42 Commando was very concerned with that.

  Q743  Mr Howarth: It is a bit of a paradox, really, because when we were in Washington, the whole talk was about post-conflict reconstruction and here there was absolutely no discussion at all, and what you are telling us is that actually the country which was having the great debate about post-conflict reconstruction actually had no plan at all and the guys who apparently were not talking about it at all had a very clear idea which they seemed to have achieved. Is there a lesson for us from this war in how we deal with the transitional phase in future?

  Mr Neely: Sadly we are learning lessons every day, at the moment, on how important it is. I would not dare comment on how we might do it, but it seems—

  Q744  Mr Howarth: We are going to have to dare to comment, so perhaps you could help us and point us in the right direction.

  Mr Neely: It just seems amazing to me that you can plan for a year for a war and win it so successfully, and yet during that war you did not plan for what happens after the four weeks and screw it up so monumentally. That is what surprises me.

  Q745  Mr Crausby: The use of cluster bombs remains controversial. I wonder what experience you had of cluster bombs and their use? In particular, did you see any evidence of the use of cluster bombs either in urban areas or close to urban areas?

  Ms Gillan: No.

  Mr Thompson: No.

  Ms Gillan: Depleted uranium, yes, cluster bombs, no.

  Q746  Mr Crausby: It is almost as mysterious as Special Forces!

  Mr Thompson: That is why we say they are all snapshots of a war.

  Q747  Mr Crausby: Overall, it was a snapshot situation, was it not? I think embedded journalism in that sense does give you a snapshot. Overall, do you have a verdict on embedded journalism? Was it successful? Everybody I talk to seems to think that it was successful—the MoD are pleased, all the people that were involved are pleased—but it just strikes me that sometimes it cannot always be the case that that can be a success for everybody. I just wondered what sort of a result you would have had without embedded journalism. Do you think you would have done all the things anyway? What part of the war did you not see, as a result of embedded journalism?

  Mr Thompson: Cluster bombs and Special Forces, by the sounds of it!

  Ms Gillan: One of the things that we have all said time and again is that we each had an incredibly different experience and each embed has had a different experience. I think you will find some that were incredibly frustrated, especially if you were watching that programme on BBC2 with the people embedded in the forward press information centre, who did not get access to anything. The three of us all got good access. We were all on the front-line. It took me by surprise how far forward I actually was. I do not think we had anticipated getting the amount of access that we did. I was basically there with a unit that was actually fighting and I was right there with them. The restrictions that we all had were that you basically do not have control of anything at all: where you go, what you do, when you go. Simple day-to-day things: when you go to the toilet, whether you can have a shower, where you are going to move to, who you speak to. You do not have a translator. In fact, the troops that I was with did not even have a translator and resorted to the "ordering a bottle of beer—

  Q748  Chairman: We can understand you perfectly well!

  Ms Gillan: They did the "ordering a bottle of beer in Benidorm" tactic, which you have just done to me, which is shouting in a loud voice! Lack of translators is always a problem but there are a number of restrictions in being embedded that you just have to take with the role, and you understand that being embedded is giving you a microcosm of a picture, it is never going to be anything other than that, and you cannot pretend to be the great war correspondent because you are only representing this small view. Jeremy will tell you the difference in being unilateral; you know how much more access you can get. However, you do get a good picture of a slice of life and it is much more human, colourful—what it is like to be a soldier; what it is like to fight; what is happening in this very small battle space, but not anything greater than that.

  Q749  Mr Crausby: Was it a hit or a miss?

  Ms Gillan: It was a hit, although I would have changed a few things if I had had the chance.

  Mr Hewitt: I think embedding was a success (I was with the Americans) but it was a success with some caveats. I was never censored, I never had any minder standing over me, I could broadcast live from the battlefield and there were no black-out periods. The only things I could not report on were future operations. I could quite often, despite the health warnings put out by the BBC and others, say precisely where I was, and it did give us a front-row seat at that part of the war you were at. Then you have to look at what embedding does not allow you to do. It does not allow you to go and investigate a story in the way that we normally do. There was a case in point where I was contacted about a very controversial incident where some people had been shot at a road block by soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division. I was about eight miles away from there and there was great interest in trying to investigate how come some people had been killed there. I had to explain I could not then turn my unit round and say "Look, for me can you go back there and we can look at it?", but I was very close to it. When you see the enormous firepower being used, you do not see where that lands. You do not, without great difficulty, know how the Iraqis are actually responding or what their view is, because the relationship between certainly the American troops and the Iraqis was often non-existent. So in reporting a war you had to be very careful not to extrapolate from what you were seeing into the wider picture, and it has certainly been my view that war is a very difficult place to report from. A lot of people do presume they know the big picture, but they rarely do. Actually, we need unilaterals like Jeremy, we need people in Baghdad, war needs as many sources as it can get, but in terms of wanting to see first-hand what was happening, what was being done, if you like, in our name, it was a fantastic opportunity. I saw things going into Baghdad which I do not believe I could have seen and which are some of the big questions of the war unless I had actually been travelling with units that were involved in a lot of very dangerous action. As I say, I saw some of the big questions in relation to how civilians got to be killed. So I think there is a purpose in being embedded beyond what Audrey was saying—the fact that she did get a very great sense of what ordinary soldiers, the 18 and 19-year-olds who were doing most of this, actually think. As I say, I think it was a success, a hit in your words, but I know that it has its limitations.

  Mr Neely: Likewise, a success. I was hugely sceptical of joining this unit. I had spent a career avoiding being too close to the military in various other conflicts but I wanted to be at what the Marines call "the tip of the spear", first in, in a hugely controversial war. I knew the first week would be a massive story as British forces were going to be at the heart of it. Similarly, it surprised me, and I would do it again. I never felt censored—

  Q750  Chairman: Not too soon, I hope.

  Mr Neely: And it depends where. I never felt censored, I never felt muzzled. It gave me more access than, probably, I had ever had to a front line before, even as an independent. I also think it was win-win all round because I think the Marines felt they had got some of the publicity they desired in their on-going battle with the Paras for publicity. Again—a huge caveat—nothing, apart from the first night and the helicopter crash, seriously went wrong. The war was a success for them. My main caveat is I wonder how the embedding would have worked if this had been a long war with heavy casualties.

  Mr Thompson: I make the case for the unilaterals. My view is that journalists are, by instinct and by nature, unilaterals; we are independent. The exception to the rule is being embedded, and it is one that we should look at very carefully as it comes up. There have been pool, or embedded, arrangements ever since the Crimea War. I have not been around quite that long but I have managed to avoid it for 30 years because I am happier doing my own thing and not being attached. But I think it worked very well. The combination of the two worked well this time. However, I would argue that there should always be the freedom to have independents and unilaterals, and if the Ministry of Defence tried to stop us doing it I still think we would try and be in there. There needs to be an accommodation of both. I do not like the idea of being totally reliant, which you are. Even with the lack of censorship, there is no doubt that you are dependent, as an embed, on those around you: you are dependent for your safety, your security, your transport, your fuel, your food, your water, for your information, when you can film, when you cannot film, when you can fire up your satellite dish, when you can broadcast. There are a lot of restrictions—maybe not censorship, but there are restraints. I did not have those restraints. I imposed some self-disciplines when I was around military, both British and American, and I hope that plays both ways and they trust you that you are grown-up enough and disciplined enough to abide by some rules that are not going to let them down and not going to let you down. To an extent, I accept, I was an honorary embed; I had not expected to be but the way the war unfolded I hung around longer in the field than I think most of us expected, but particularly after casualties were taken among journalists we were more aware than ever about the security and safety aspect. One of the things about being independent which is very good is that you do not get involved with Ministry of Defence media minders, which I think you will find, from most journalists' points of view, are the bane of their lives and are actually a nuisance because they are usually either under-ranked or under-qualified to do the job, in a lot of cases. There are some very good ones but a lot of the time they tend to get in between you and the story. A lot of our colleagues who have been embedded will tell you that; it is not always helpful and they are not always trained to the standards you would like, and sometimes they are an impediment to reporting. I am also concerned about journalists seen as combatants. Whichever way you look at it, journalists embedded are seen, or could be seen, by the opposition to those forces as combatants. Some of our embeds wore uniforms- not everybody did, but some did. The opposing forces cannot tell whether you are a journalist or a combatant, so we get drawn more and more into this area of concern for many of us, which is the journalist seen as a combatant. There are other areas we may be able to pick up on later, like journalists with minders who end up armed and who get involved with firefights—which, again, drives you down the long and dark road towards journalists being seen as combatants and, therefore, raising the risk to us. So those are all areas that I think are of concern. As Bill said, and as I think we are all aware, it went well this time, but what if it went badly? How strained would those relationships be with an embed? My argument is for both.

  Ms Gillan: Can I just make a point that unlike everybody else on the panel I actually was censored and censorship was an issue. It was an issue for a number of journalists. As we said, it is a different experience for everybody.

  Q751  Chairman: We will come on to the section on censorship.

  Mr Thompson: Chairman, there was one other point. I do not know whether it is worth dwelling on it but there was a very fundamental difference between the American and the British embed, in that British embeds are seen as pools—in other words Bill's material can be used by any British broadcaster and any world broadcaster. Gavin and all the Americans were unilateral embeds, in other words you did not have to share that material with anybody. It is a fundamental difference in the way that the two military bodies choose to run their embeds. I do not know whether it made any difference or not, but there is a difference.

  Q752  Rachel Squire: I think Mr Thompson has touched on some of this, but I am just trying to visualise. You are effectively saying you were free to roam. Did you have your own logistics unit that went with you to provide water etc?

  Mr Thompson: Yes. I had a satellite dish, I had three vehicles and I had a supply chain which, when they could get across the border from Kuwait, supplied us with fresh food, water and fuel. We had our own satellite equipment, our own editing gear, our own camera gear, and I was determined that we would not be reliant or dependent on anybody if we did not have to be. Even when we were with British forces I was not begging off them—quite often they were begging off us because there were shortages that they enjoyed which we could give them.

  Q753  Rachel Squire: Your other comment was that embedded journalists were more likely to be seen as combatants. Am I not correct in thinking that it was the non-embedded journalists who suffered the most casualties because they were not distinguished, necessarily, when you were crossing the desert as being non-partisan?

  Mr Thompson: I think the figures are pretty close, actually. We can go into this but I do not think there is a lot of difference between those who died in embedded positions and those who died in non-embedded. Then, of course, there were those in Baghdad who were there with the approval of the Iraqi authorities. There is actually not much to differentiate. There are dangers for unilaterals because we have found, in the last decade or so, particularly in the Balkans and in some of the African conflicts and here, that certainly one side will be inclined to use ambulances and press and TV vehicles to ferry around armed combatants. There is no doubt that certainly the American forces had been told that—which was one of the reasons there may have been journalistic casualties this time—there were Fedayeen units driving around in either ambulances or press vehicles. So it does raise risks for us if we are gallivanting around on our own in open country. That is our specific danger, but what I am talking about more is an opponent of the army you are with simply saying "If you are a journalist embedded with your army, you must be on their side", which goes back to the points raised earlier about how we separate ourselves. We know we can be objective, we claim our independence and, hopefully, are proud of it, but not every nation that our forces may be fighting against will make the same differentiation and will not necessarily believe we are objective, they will think we are merely lackeys of our military and our government.

  Q754  Rachel Squire: That leads me to another question. Was it true that you were only allowed to be attached to British units if you, as a non-embedded journalist, had insurance? In other words, that they did not have to take any responsibility for you?

  Mr Thompson: That is a question for the MoD. I was never made aware of that. I did not carry a certificate of insurance with me.

  Ms Gillan: Did the embeds not have insurance as well? We all had insurance. We all had to have insurance. I think we signed indemnity release forms.

  Mr Howarth: Who paid the premiums? Not you, I hope!

  Q755  Rachel Squire: You have given some indication but do you want to say any more, Mr Thompson, about the general reaction of the military authorities to your activities?

  Mr Thompson: The people I was with throughout were an absolute delight, could not have been nicer and could not have been more welcoming. They often said they were pleased to have us around because we were good for morale; we had got troops on air, their families saw their troops on air and we were an interesting diversion as well when the days dragged a bit. So all in all they seemed to be happy for us to be around. The only people who were not were those involved in the forward transmission unit, or FPIC (?) or Hub, as it is variously known, which was meant to be the focus of the whole British journalistic operation, particularly the embedded operation. The idea is that the different embeds like Bill and Audrey would all be spokes running out from this hub, and all their material, everybody was originally led to believe, would go back into this hub where a number of senior correspondents and their teams would be and would process this material and send it off to Britain and their TV and radio stations and their newspapers, and also that this would be the font of all wisdom, the main source of all information, the big picture, the overall view, and so on. What is quite clear to, I think, all of us involved, whether embedded or not, is that it was a bit of a disaster, frankly, and although the individual embeds worked the hub became a source of great friction and frustration, as you will hear I am sure from people like Alex Thompson tomorrow and as you have probably seen, as Audrey was saying, from the documentary series running. They got bogged down in the desert, they were the bit that paused. They got stuck in the desert in Northern Kuwait, much to the frustration of many of our colleagues (and we would probably feel the same); they were not getting to see anything, they were not getting much information, they were not getting anywhere—and they had been told they were pretty much the big banana, they were going to be the main thing in the war as far as British media was concerned. As a result of that frustration, they got stuck into the MoD, they got stuck into their own MoD minders, the chief press officers there and so on, and one of the results of that is that they then sent out raiding parties to try and hunt me down so that I could be evicted from Iraq because, clearly, I was a thorn in their side. The senior officer at the time, who I was with, said "Don't worry about it" (I'll put it mildly) "it is just red tape, don't worry about it, it will go away." He said "You are no bother to us; in fact, we like having you around. I am sure this problem will go away." Clearly it came down to a mixture of frustration journalistically and for the media minders from the MoD and from Whitehall who were involved in this hub operation. I am sure, as a result of that, we will probably review it next time; whether it needs to be in place or not, who knows? It was a glitch in the system.

  Q756  Rachel Squire: Picking up on that and the lack of information and frustration and so on, are you saying that efforts were made to censor your reports in the way Audrey—

  Mr Thompson: Not censor my reports, no, just get me out of the country—which I saw as a great compliment and, also, an added incentive to stay there and get stuff on air. It did not bother me but, clearly, I was annoying somebody.

  Q757  Rachel Squire: Coming back to you, Audrey, and your experiences of censorship, were efforts made to persuade you to go home as well?

  Ms Gillan: No, there were no efforts made for me to go home. My experience was that everything that I filed to The Guardian had to be read by somebody there, and initially there were specially appointed media ops officers around. First of all, there were four or five people whose full-time job was media ops, and they were way behind. There was also within the regiment an officer who did media ops. He actually was with 16 Air Assault Brigade HQ so he did not come to the front line, therefore the sort of censorship came down to the commanding officer and second-in-command. I do not imagine that they would have had that much media training. It was a bit of a two-way street, in some senses, because mistakes that I had made they corrected, in the sense that I am no military expert, so sometimes if I had used the wrong parlance for some kind of ordnance or whatever else then they would change that. They did change things, and an MoD official acknowledged to me last week that it was not censorship but meddling, and there was some of that. That is simply because, I think, there was no clear line that they were told "You can change so much if she says where you are or gives your battle plan—these definitive things. However, if she writes something that you do not particularly like and you think it reflects badly on the regiment you cannot change it". No one had said that, so therefore things like "running for cover" was changed to "dashing to cover" because it implied cowardice. Some quotes were criticised for being too anti-American and some of that was changed. If there were things that seemed to be critical of the higher chain of command they were kind of slightly worried about that. It was not that they were doing this in a malicious way, it was just simply that they are officers and they want all the reflected glory for their regiment. We got into several arguments about my stuff being too negative because other journalists were writing much more gung-ho "We went in at dawn" type of things, and I was not doing that, and they were kind of persuading me to do that, but they could not work me round. I think the solution to it would be to have a proper media ops officer. Then you are stuck, as Jeremy said, with a minder who follows you around everywhere and just gets in the way. I do not know what the solution is. Other journalists have told me that the guy they were with had a handbook and that handbook said "Never lie, never this, never that". I never saw any of that, but I still had people changing my copy. So I think it is definitely an issue and it was an issue in different ways for different people. I know that nobody read our Observer colleague's stuff at all, he could write what he liked.

  Q758  Rachel Squire: Do you think he was given preferential treatment because he was somehow seen as more supportive and less critical?

  Ms Gillan: No. It was luck of the draw. The way we all got our postings was just a lottery. I just happened to have the Household Cavalry regiment and I do not think they necessarily liked The Guardian that much. They put up a picture of the Queen for me arriving. There was certainly a bit of joshing going on. They ended up, all the Household Cavalry, reading The Guardian anyway, which was quite a fillip actually. I think the MoD chap last week was quite right in the sense that he said it did become meddlesome and very frustrating, but it did not interfere with the truth of the picture that I had to portray.

  Q759  Mr Roy: Just a small point. I remember during the conflict, on a Saturday afternoon, watching two soldiers lying in a concrete base looking as though they were going to fire their rifles at any point. Those pictures were shown for something like half-an-hour, and I was a bit worried, watching it, that someone had to feed these News 24 pictures just to keep the programme going. I did feel very uncomfortable about that. Apart from feeling uncomfortable, and I can understand what you are saying about censorship and such like, is there not a case that your reporting could have helped the enemy's intelligence gathering? Hence the reason why they needed some sort of censorship?

  Ms Gillan: I can give a perfect illustration of that, which is a mistake that I made. During the blue-on-blue attack the convoy of vehicles that were struck by the A10s popped red smoke, which intimates to the friendly forces in the sky that these are their own. I wrote a big piece for The Guardian in which I had taken out the colour "red". However, there was a separate piece which was a first-person account from somebody who survived in which the version that went over still had the red smoke in it. So it was an absolute accident but it was a serious security breach. There was an investigation afterwards, at which it was suggested that Audrey Gillan had done it on purpose to get an exclusive. Actually, it appeared in The Mirror and I do not think that if I was trying to get an exclusive I would want it to be in The Mirror! It was an accident, but the implications of that are that if somebody in Baghdad is reading The Daily Mirror they will know that if they pop red smoke—


 
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