Select Committee on Defence Third Report


466. The Iraq conflict generated unprecedented levels of media interest and coverage both in the UK and across the world.[686] Almost 5000 journalists were in the region covering the war. The coalition took the decision to embed[687] around 700 journalists in front line units. This was partly in order to be able to exercise some control over the many journalists who would otherwise have been trying to follow events in theatre, as 'unilaterals'. Even so the conflict has been claimed to have been the most costly in journalists' lives in history—at least 16 were killed in a two week major conflict phase—a historically high per day casualty rate.[688]

467. The embedding of journalists was one of the more novel aspects of the media campaign, not least because of the scale of the practice—158 were with British forces compared with a total pool of journalists with the task force in the Falklands War of 29.[689] However, the media operation was not only on the frontline; it also involved journalists in Forward Transmission Units attached to major headquarters in the field, in Centcom in Qatar, and in the relevant capitals (principally London and Washington). In some cases journalists in capitals knew more about particular incidents from their colleagues on the ground than the officials answering their questions did from the communications available to them.

468. Some have suggested that the mass of tactical level detail which formed the bulk of the reports from the embedded journalists obscured the overall strategic picture and that the result was to give disproportionate importance to minor engagements. A senior TV editor recently said in public that 24 hour news editors had no time to 'fact check' before transmission and this was a problem that was compounded by embedded journalists' reports, which editors felt they had to broadcast if available.

MoD's media strategy

469. The Ministry of Defence began working on its media strategy in September 2002 in consultation with the Americans.[690] In December, media operations were practised in Exercise Internal Look held at Centcom.[691] Practical arrangements began in January 2003 once the southern option had been decided upon and the British land package started to become clearer.[692] In preparing for Operation Telic, MoD claimed to be building on the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign during both of which it had attracted some criticism. In fact, as far back as the Falklands war, media operations were identified by MoD and our predecessors as an important area of weakness.[693] In Kosovo, MoD admitted that 'there was a lot of improvisation' during the campaign.[694]

470. MoD's handbook for the procedures for dealing with the media in times of conflict is known as the 'Green Book'. It states in its introduction:

    During a military crisis, or a period of tension, or in war threatening the United Kingdom, at home or overseas, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will aim to provide for the media a range of facilities to enable first hand reporting, in addition to an accurate, objective and timely information service.[695]

The provision of facilities and information, however, is subject to operational and security constraints.

471. First Reflections describes the primary aim of MoD's media effort in Iraq as being 'to provide accurate and timely information about UK military involvement.'[696] They judge themselves to have been 'largely successful' in this:

    Building on the experience gained in previous conflicts, coalition media operations were much improved compared to recent operations and the extensive resulting coverage was generally well informed and usually factually accurate.[697]

472. The Director General Corporate Communications, Mr Tony Pawson, told us that the main aims of the media strategy were to be as open as possible and to meet the practical needs of the media in terms of substance and timeliness. He also wanted the information provided by MoD to be accurate, but admitted:

    There is of course a tension between being quick and being accurate. That tension was present there throughout the conflict.[698]

473. The media plan was 'an integral part of the overall military plan'.[699] However, the Government's media strategy was coordinated across Whitehall with a daily interdepartmental media coordination meeting chaired by No. 10. MoD had to fit in with the broader objectives of that co-ordinated policy.[700] As Mr Pawson explained:

    In relation to media, there is…coordination on a daily basis now, not just for Iraq, across Whitehall. We play our role in that. Policy has a particular meaning in the Ministry of Defence. We define it quite narrowly in terms of defence policy. Much of what we do is execution of grand policy.[701]

474. In all some 200 additional press officers were deployed by MoD in theatre and in London to support the media campaign effort.[702] But, even with this additional capability, the sheer scale of the media contingent stretched their resources. Lessons for the Future acknowledged these problems and highlighted the shortage of trained media operations personnel. The result was that 'most' positions were filled by double-hatted Regular or Reserve personnel.

    This delayed the establishment of a robust media operations capability sufficiently early in theatre…we need to address how to provide an early media capability in an era of high profile, high readiness expeditionary operations.[703]

475. One consequence, described to us by Audrey Gillan of The Guardian, was a degree of unnecessary interference by non-expert media handlers that could appear very like censorship:

    everything that I filed to The Guardian had to be read by somebody there, and initially there were specially appointed media ops officers around… 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…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…I think the solution to it would be to have a proper media ops officer.[704]

476. Lessons for the Future also identified weaknesses in the transition from the conflict to post conflict phase. Many media operations personnel left theatre shortly after major hostilities had ended, which resulted in a loss of initiative in the media campaign during a period of significant (and negative) media coverage of the coalition's activities in seeking to stabilise the country.[705] As we have noted above, this was also a period when information operations more generally were seen as having been weak.

477. We believe that the importance of the media campaign in the modern world remains under-appreciated by sections of the Armed Forces. The early establishment of a robust media operations capability in theatre must be a priority for any operation. Where an operation is perceived to be a 'war of choice' the ability to handle multiple media organisations in theatre with professionalism and sophistication is essential.

Taste and Impartiality

478. The media's role has attracted much comment. Air Marshal Burridge publicly questioned the motives and values of the media in general, at one point commenting:

He also commented on their effect on morale and motivation to the Committee:

    I believe that the position that the UK media has taken, for a number of reasons, is extremely counter-productive as far as individual motivation goes.[707]

479. But the media coverage was by no means all negative. The embedded media provided pictures of the coalition forces professionally approaching their tasks. The Secretary of State wrote that the embedded media helped secure public opinion in the UK.[708] While the BBC was criticised by pro-war and anti-war campaigners alike for bias, some American networks were strongly taken to task for allegedly acting as 'cheer-leaders' for the coalition. Despite vigorous criticism in the UK of one US network, Fox TV, for its coverage, a recent Independent Television Commission (ITC) ruling said that it had not breached ITC rules requiring 'due impartiality', noting that impartiality did not mean that a broadcaster had to be neutral on every issue.[709]

480. On the other hand Air Marshal Burridge publicly attacked the Arabic TV station Al Jazeera for broadcasting images of dead British troops. 'The decision to broadcast such material is deplorable'.[710] As embedded journalists draw on more and more sophisticated technology, the possibility of a live TV broadcast of a person or persons being killed increases. We raised this question with our witnesses, but no-one had a solution.[711] Whether live feeds should be required to be on a 'loop' system with a time delay, allowing for the intervention of editorial judgement to prevail is a question for the broadcasters and the media machinery of government. We strongly believe that the live broadcast of the death of service personnel would be utterly unacceptable. We recommend that MoD begin discussions as a matter of urgency with media organisations to find a solution to this very real possibility in a future conflict.

Attitudes to the embed system

481. Some journalists chose to be unilateral—that is not accepting the restrictions of being embedded with a particular unit and therefore able to move about as freely as conditions would allow. Mr Jeremy Thompson of Sky News told us how he crossed the border between Iraq and Kuwait on 22 March through a hole in the fence. However, soon after crossing he attached himself to the 7th Armoured Brigade for security reasons—Mr Terry Lloyd, who was working for ITN and was a friend of his, was killed a few miles from where Mr Thompson was operating:

Few journalists were totally unattached, not least as they needed to have passes to operate within Kuwait. The flood of unilaterals and webcasting freelancers, that some had predicted would be drawn to Iraq, did not in fact materialise.

482. Broadly speaking the British commanders in the field expressed themselves satisfied with how the system operated. Air Marshal Burridge felt that taken in the round the system had 'proven just positive':

    … given that we went into this campaign with 33% public support and given the need to generate greater public support, then the media become such an important aspect.[713]

The main concern he had was the need for better context—an issue which is discussed below.

483. The British land force commander, General Brims, said that he was happy with the way the embed system worked:

    The embedded journalists were absolutely fine, from my point of view….None of them let the side down, as far as we were concerned, that I am aware of…I used a spokesman at my level and talked to them on an all-day, daily basis, as it were, obviously I was in touch with the spokesman. I only engaged with [the media] myself, live, as it were, quite sparingly. I did give them quite a lot of background briefings, to help them be able to report as best they could.[714]

This view was shared by the air component commander, Air Vice Marshal Torpy:

    We had embedded media journalists on a number of our deployed operation bases…I think we got pretty good coverage actually and I think, from talking to my own people, they were very satisfied with the coverage that they got.[715]

484. However, the maritime commander, Rear Admiral Snelson, raised some concerns, the most important of which, from his perspective, was that the maritime picture did not appear in as timely a manner as the land or air picture:

    I was sitting in the Middle East tending to watch American channels because I was in American Headquarters and not watching British ones…I think, for the most part it was balanced, but…there was not a lot of media coverage, and that reflects a couple of problems. One is the business of getting television pictures back from ships in a timely fashion. We have invested a certain amount of money in this, in devices that will take a tape out of a camera and then send it back via Imarsat commercial satellite. All of that takes time, and our experience was, in this operation, that when television pictures from sea eventually got back it would be some six to eight to ten hours later. As far as the editors were concerned, on the rolling news channels, that was old news, so frequently, I think, we missed opportunities to get the maritime dimension in the news. [716]

Also, there was a rigidity in the placing of journalists on particular ships which he did not find helpful,

    The coverage itself that we got, I think, largely was balanced… We had embedded journalists in different maritime units. That in itself was not a problem, but we were not permitted to move them round to different ships after the initial allocation had been done from London… A lesson we learned, and I have put forward and I think the Department has accepted, is that I wish I had been delegated control of where I could move the journalists round.[717]

485. For the journalists who were embedded there was always the danger of their objectivity being influenced by living in close proximity to the troops with whom they were embedded. Audrey Gillan, who was attached to a cavalry squadron of 105 people, explained to the Committee what it meant to live with the troops:

    when you are embedded…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 pack out, roll it down beside them…you do become incredibly close…you cannot help but become close to the subject that you are living with…[718]

Mr Gavin Hewitt of the BBC, who was embedded with the American 3rd Infantry Division, and witnessed some of the most intense fighting, agreed:

    There is a powerful bond between yourself and the unit you are travelling with. It is unavoidable. The principal reason is you are dependent on them for your safety.[719]

He also noted what all of our journalist witnesses told us, that they did not know what they would have done if they had to report a serious failure or setback for the troops they were with:

    The big question for me… 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.[720]

486. Overall the embedding of journalists with combat units worked well. The experience is likely to be seen as a precedent for future operations. Problems arose, however, firstly with the shortage, particularly early on, of properly trained and experienced media officers in some units and secondly because of the inflexibility of the deployment arrangements of the journalists. We recommend that MoD take steps to avoid these problems arising in future operations.

Setting the context

487. Many of the journalists who were embedded were not defence or diplomatic/foreign affairs experts and the product of their work was often raw and unsophisticated. As Mr Alex Thomson, of Channel 4 News, told the Committee: 'television is a crude beast, it needs the pictures, we live or die by that and frankly whether there is a journalist behind who can understand what is going on is in some senses not the main thing.'[721]

488. The results could be, to put it mildly, misleading. Air Marshal Burridge told us:

    … the description of individual events should be pretty accurate, with one major proviso…I was horrified at how profligate with language some of the embedded journalists were. You may remember a Sunday morning when 1,000 people started coming out of Basra to the south over one of the bridges and they talked about poor people being caught in cross fire. They were not caught in cross fire, they were being machine gunned by the Baath party militia. Nobody was firing back…Words that fall readily off the tongue but actually do not accurately describe what they are seeing. [722]

The problem was reports from individual embedded journalists both over-dramatised the events they were part of and were broadcast without sufficient effort to place them in the context of the operation as a whole:

    what I think was lacking, and I have given a lot of thought to how this might be redressed, was a decent method of putting that into context…there was a tendency for a pinprick to be reported as a mortal haemorrhage, the notion that things were bogged down, all dreadfully inaccurate. Had there been a better method of placing those things in context, then a more accurate picture would have been painted.[723]

489. Furthermore, MoD was clearly surprised by how the embedded journalists reports distorted what they saw as the 'true' picture. According to Sir Kevin Tebbit:

    there was an awkward period after the very rapid initial success… It looked as though the embedded media were getting amazing pictures, something which has never happened before, almost warfare as it occurred, and it was therefore very difficult indeed for the media itself to put this in context. It was difficult to know whether what was one tiny little incident in one place was in fact representative of the overall campaign. We found ourselves in a situation where it looked much more brutal and much less successful than in fact was the case. It was quite difficult for the media as well as for us to put that in context. In that sense there was a complication.[724]

490. According to First Reflections, 'MoD's intention from the outset was to enable UK personnel in theatre to brief the media on operational issues, leaving overarching strategic and political issues for London' and 'the National Contingent HQ Media Centre and press information centres, all of which had MoD spokesmen attached, helped provide context.'[725] It seemed that the intention was that the strategic picture should be provided by US and UK commanders in Centcom in Qatar, but this did not work very well.

491. Mr Urban told us:

    It is interesting when you hear in this debate post war from people in the military or MoD this idea about the mosaic or the snapshot or whatever. Clearly from their point of view, the media operations plan involved having this Centcom central briefing. I know there was some discussion about whether they should do something in Kuwait on a similar pattern and it was decided to keep it in Qatar. I think it disappointed the military.

    One of the responses in London centrally was that MoD started putting on briefings and making certain people available for interview more often. The Secretary of State was able to appear on Newsnight quite a few times…my understanding was that they had to do more here (in London) than they had originally anticipated doing because Centcom had disappointed in terms of being the central, whatever you want to call it, rebuttal or information point that people had thought it might be before the war.[726]

492. Some context was provided by expert commentators (analysts, academics and retired military personnel) who were employed by the media organisations as 'presenters' friends' to give some broader perspectives to the raw feed from the embedded journalists. In MoD's opinion this was not always helpful because the context provided was not always more accurate than the impressionistic reports from the front line. One suggestion that has been floated on various occasions has been for some of these 'experts' and journalists to be briefed on a confidential basis by the MoD (as a number of journalists in theatre were) so that they could better inform the media's analysis of operations.


493. Another source of context was supposed to be the Forward Transmission Unit (FTU) which was a media facility attached to the rear of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division headquarters. In the event many editors chose to use information direct from the embedded journalists with front-line units rather than from the journalists who were attached to the FTU. One of the journalists placed in the FTU, Mr Alex Thomson, described it as a situation in which they were 'transmitting but not particularly forward'.[727] Though nominally attached to the British Land Forces HQ, it never got further than just over the Iraqi border. Audrey Gillan told us:

    I think you will find some that were incredibly frustrated…with the people embedded in the forward press information centre, who did not get access to anything.[728]

494. The intention seems to have been that these journalists would 'editorialise' the feed from the frontline embedded journalists, placing their reports in a bigger picture and providing a degree of context, but that did not happen. MoD accepted that the operation of the FTU was something that might have to be reviewed, as Mr Pawson explained:

    This is one of the areas of the Green Book we will have to look at with the media because…technology has moved on, we can see it moving on even further in terms of lighter weight vehicles, easier satellite communication, better quality pictures and if there is a preference for 'action' material over the more considered material then whether there is a place for a Forward Transmitting Unit between embedded journalists, unilateral journalist and a press information centre, say the Coalition Press Information Centre, that is something that we would want to look at.[729]

495. Whatever the intentions, it is clear that the arrangements to provide a broader context for individual reports from embedded journalists did not work in Operation Telic. In part this was a consequence of advances in technology and of the growth in 24 hour news channels, both of which can be expected to apply at least as forcibly in any future conflict. MoD needs to consider how better to support the context setting of battlefield information in the future.

The tempo of operations

496. The tempo of operations in Iraq has been a recurring theme of this inquiry. As First Reflections states, 'The overwhelming success of rapid, decisive operations in Iraq reflects the deployment of fast moving light forces, highly mobile armoured capabilities and Close Air Support, which made use of near real-time situational awareness by and by night.'[730] At the same time live 24 hour news coverage meant that the public in the UK (and throughout the world) could watch the operation as it unfolded to an unprecedented degree. As we have noted above, in some cases journalists in national capitals knew more about particular incidents from their embedded colleagues than the officials answering their questions did from the communications available to them. Indeed we were told that this was not just a problem for official spokesmen—the intelligence which forces in theatre received was not infrequently 24 hours behind the television reports. This speed of operations made it very much more difficult, if not impossible, for MoD to control the media agenda or to influence the stories which the media chose to give prominence to. Mr Jeremy Thompson told us:

    The technological advances this time meant that, in effect, we out there reporting were ahead, really, of Downing Street, Whitehall, Qatar, Pentagon and everywhere else, as they said repeatedly in their briefings: 'We cannot confirm what your guys have just reported live from the field'. The technology, in a way, is maybe galloping ahead of how we all deal with it and how we all cope with it and what our sensibilities are, and certainly galloping ahead, in some cases, of how politicians and military people respond to that. I think it is going to be very difficult to restrain and constrain that technology now.[731]

In an address to RUSI, Mr Richard Sambrook, Head of News, BBC, said:

    There is now a new media, with new journalists producing new news, who have little regard for those of us in the traditional media. With a laptop and a phone connection websites can 'broadcast' from anywhere, unregulated. The Guardian ran the 'Web log' of an unknown man in Baghdad reporting his daily diary from the city under attack; there was a Russian intelligence site offering raw intelligence briefings; there were many dozens of anti-war web sites offering a different perspective and challenging the messages of the coalition on not just a daily but an hourly basis. All this was accessible from anywhere in the world….[732]

497. Military planners have been slow to keep up with changes in the journalistic profession, often applying the lessons of the last conflict to the next one. Military information planning has only just come to terms with the 24 hour news cycle. But the media has taken another quantum leap. It has even been suggested that in a future conflict media organisations might try to deploy their own UAVs to acquire live pictures of combat operations.

Perception Management

498. MoD denied that perception management was a direct objective of the media campaign and argued that accuracy and credibility were more important in an era when the public were less aware of defence issues than in previous generations.[733] MoD officials emphasised that they were in the business of presenting the truth. Nonetheless there are evident tensions between the objectives of the two complementary or related activities of information operations and media operations. The Assistant Director of Media Operations Policy in MoD, Colonel Paul Brook, told us of the need to keep them separate:

    We are quite clear to separate out media operations from, if you like, information and deception type of work. There is some American doctrine that tends to see the world as a global whole. There is a conceptual view that might say if you are in wars of national survival perhaps that is the right way to look at things, but in our terms the relationship for us with the media and the media in turn with the public, which we appreciate, it is more important to be accurate and credible than it is to have a particular line at a particular time on a particular issue.[734]

However, the head of British information operations, Air Vice Marshal Mike Heath, told us that he also was in the business of providing the truth and that the coordination and removal of barriers between information and media operations was necessary for effective campaigning:

    The problem with Information Operations…is that most of the people who are peripheral or outside of the art believe that a large element is focussed on deception or deceit. With the very specific exception of that bit where we would try and lie or dissuade or persuade military commanders, the entire art of Information Operations is based on truth.[735]

    that is why media operations were very reluctant to talk to us, because if you have this perception, 'Well, you do not want to talk to Mike Heath because all he is going to do is persuade us to lie to the public or the press', then you are intuitively at loggerheads, so we had to persuade people that my remit under both law and the direction of my Secretary of State was that we were to be truthful at all times.[736]

499. If press officers are to retain the credibility necessary for them to do their jobs, those they brief must be confident that what they are being told is accurate. But journalists have told us that that was not always the case. A persistent criticism has been that successes were announced before they had actually been achieved. A frequently quoted example was the taking of Umm Qasr. Mr Pawson admitted there had been shortcomings and explained:

    The sort of situation where I think our people on the ground had a very difficult time was if you had, to take an example, a company commander going into Umm Qasr and it looks to him to be clear and safe and he has an embed with him who reports it clear and safe; the embed reports back to Qatar and Qatar asks the people there, 'Is it safe?' 'We do not know, but your man says it is.' It is very difficult for him to continue to say, 'We do not know' until it is absolutely safe and something unexpected happens in these situations. It was the first time we had seen the irregulars in a major way, operators in civilian clothes and so forth, so yes, in a sense it was wrong, but it was not deliberately wrong. It was done in good faith.[737]

He added that:

    the fact that in the Umm Qasr area the fortunes of war changed during that period did not mean…that we in any way misled with this implication of deliberately giving false information. The information that we gave was given in good faith the best we knew it at that time and we had no reason at that time to doubt it.[738]

MoD did not fully appreciate how the embedding system, coupled with rolling 24 hour news programmes, would undermine their ability to manage the information coming out of the combat theatre. Nor were they successful in managing the expectations of the different journalists in different centres such as the FTU and Qatar. We believe that failure to support the media presence swiftly enough with enough adequately trained and skilled media relations personnel was a serious shortcoming and one that MoD should not allow to happen again. It is also the case that this campaign went the coalition's way most of the time—in the circumstances of a more difficult military campaign it is not clear how the Ministry of Defence would cope with the pressures of unfavourable coverage from the front line.

686   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-First Reflections (July 2003) p 16. Back

687   ie place individual journalists with specific combat units for the period of operations. Back

688   According to the International Federation of Journalists, 62 journalists died in Bosnia, 23 were killed in the whole of the Kosovan conflict of 1999, 4 journalists were killed in the Gulf War of 1991 and 9 died in Afghanistan between 2001-02, Byrne, Ciar, 'Media Casualties of other conflict', The Guardian, 9 April 2003.  Back

689   This figure includes broadcast technicians. Annex C, Note to the Committee from MoD, 13 January 2004, Ev 421-2. See also Carruthers, Susan L. The Media at War (London, 2000), p 122. Back

690   Q 1359 Back

691   Ev 420 Back

692   Q 1360 Back

693   HC 347-I, Lessons of Kosovo, (1999-2002) para 239. Back

694   HC 347-I, Lessons of Kosovo, (1999-2002) para 239. Back

695 Back

696   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-First Reflections (July 2003) p 16. Back

697   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-Lessons for the Future (December 2003), para 10.10. Back

698   Q 1359 Back

699   Q 1360 Back

700   Ev 420-2 Back

701   Q 1371 Back

702   Q 1406 Back

703   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-Lessons for the Future (December 2003) para 10.12. Back

704   Q 757 Back

705   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-Lessons for the Future (December 2003) para 10.13. Back

706   The Daily Telegraph, 7 April 2003. Back

707   Q 406 Back

708   The Times, 28 March 2003. Back

709   Gibson, Owen, 'War News Not Biased, says ITC' The Guardian, 19 June 2003. Back

710   Statement by Air Marshal Brian Burridge, 27 March 2003, Back

711   Qq 763-6 Back

712   Q 704 Back

713   Q 407 Back

714   Q 698 Back

715   Q 1354 Back

716   Q 1568 Back

717   Q 1568 Back

718   Q 711 Back

719   Q 713 Back

720   Q 713 Back

721   Q 794 Back

722   Q 404 Back

723   Q 404 Back

724   Q 1730 Back

725   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-First Reflections (July 2003), p 16. Back

726   Q 851 Back

727   Q 770 Back

728   Q 747 Back

729   Q 1423 Back

730   Ministry of Defence, Operations in Iraq-First Reflections (July 2003) p 19. Back

731   Q 765 Back

732   Published in, RUSI Journal, vol 148, no. 4 (August 2003). Back

733   Q 1373 Back

734   Q 1373 Back

735   Q 1583 Back

736   Q 1584 Back

737   Q 1382 Back

738   Q 1448 Back

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