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29 Jan 2008 : Column 63WH—continued

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Ann Winterton: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Lady later, if she will allow me to put a few things on the record first.

We manifestly cannot seek to control what the media report, nor should we. A free press is a vital organ of democracy, and as such we should and do seek to engage proactively with the media. First and foremost, for the reasons already mentioned, that is the correct thing to do. Moreover, it represents operational pragmatism. Our enemies certainly put their side of the story; regularly it is deliberately slanted or falsified, but it is a story none the less. There is a risk that, in the absence of proper facts, such propaganda becomes established public perception, which is manifestly not in our interests.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

The second pressure is our overriding responsibility to protect operational security. We ask much of our armed services personnel and put them in positions of threat, danger and pressure, and I am simply not prepared to countenance anything that might exacerbate those risks. The premature release of information heralding our intentions or activity on current operations amounts to precisely that.

There is no simple template that we can use to get the balance right. Often it is highly situationally dependent. For example, on occasions it is right to make public in advance details of an operation. That might be necessary to ensure that civilians have an opportunity to move away from areas of military activity, thereby minimising the risk of civilian casualties. Equally, surprise is a key principle of military operations, acting as a force multiplier and providing considerable force protection, and it can be critical to success. Achieving it is difficult and necessitates a much more restrictive information release policy. Such a policy cannot, of course, prevent ill-informed media speculation and rumour-mongering, but we cannot advocate the sacrifice of operational security on the altar of bad journalism. The hon. Lady said that our top priority should be the promotion of news to the British public. I do not underplay that, but our top priority, despite the fact that it makes her want to scream, has to be operational security.

Ann Winterton: May I confirm that I did not say it should be the top priority? Of course, it should not be the top priority. I said that if one knew someone fighting in the battle of Musa Qaleh, for example, one would not get any information on the MOD website that had not already been put out in the local press directly from correspondence in the field. One might not know what was happening from the MOD website or from the military in any way, but might know it from elsewhere. If the MOD and the military put out the facts—if they drove a news agenda that suited them—it would benefit operational security and would certainly benefit those at home who are concerned.

Mr. Ainsworth: If I misheard the hon. Lady, I apologise. She did say, however, that the Taliban knew “exactly” what we were planning to do.

Ann Winterton: I said—

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Mr. Ainsworth: That is what the hon. Lady said. The only word that she said that I have difficulty with is “exactly”. The Taliban did not know exactly what we were going to do. This issue needs to be judged on the outcomes. In the Musa Qaleh situation, the Taliban were well bedded into a civilian area and were aware that an attack was imminent. They paraded themselves in front of the world’s media, saying that they were up for it, ready for it and capable of defending the situation. The outcome was, tragically, that we had two British casualties—but only two—and low numbers of casualties within the Afghan army and among civilians. Then, in front of the world’s media, whether they cared to report it or not, the Taliban fled. I cannot get my head around how anyone can say that that operation, taken in the round, was not a success.

Patrick Mercer: First, may I apologise for my late arrival? I absolutely take the points that my hon. Friend has made. I pay tribute to the gallantry and leadership of Brigadier Andy Mackay and the 52 Infantry Brigade in the seizure of Musa Qaleh, and I deeply regret the deaths and casualties that came with that. The brigadier’s counter-insurgency strategy is clear. He is no fool and he makes it obvious that G5 and the communication of operational intent to the enemy are key tools in his armoury. That outstanding brigadier has been let down badly at MOD level, and I should like to know why there is no single service chief in charge of public relations, as there used to be.

Mr. Ainsworth: How we structure ourselves is an issue for debate, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the points that I have made about our overall first priority in this case. The outcome is clear for all to see. I want our armed forces to have the opportunity to let the British public know exactly what they are doing on the public’s behalf and what their capabilities are, but that has to be put into context. Operational considerations have to come first and always will. I agree with the hon. Lady about exploiting the regional media and about stories on local men and boys. I am not sure that we do enough in that regard. It is not MOD policy to do anything other than exploit that, but whether we do it as well as we could is worth considering.

Making judgments on this issue is far from easy and requires careful co-ordination up and down the chain of command. We should therefore be careful about drawing conclusions on the basis of partial information, especially when that is done with the advantage of hindsight.

Against the background that I have given, let me say some more about the Musa Qaleh operation. It was complex, multi-faceted and involved a large number of troops drawn from many nations, with Afghans at the vanguard. It was critical to the operation’s success that we obtained and maintained the support of the people of Musa Qaleh in the face of a determined campaign of intimidation by the Taliban. It was therefore vital that we adopted a proactive information campaign. That was subject to detailed planning and was achieved in part by embedding two journalists in the UK units that were providing support to the Afghan forces. The journalists provided reports to newspapers and TV stations in the UK and internationally.

Embedding journalists in military units enables us to afford them access to military operations that simply would not be possible otherwise. In return, we expect
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them to be responsible in their reporting and not to breach operational security or endanger our people. Evidence suggests that the Musa Qaleh operation is a prime example of such a relationship of mutual trust working well. The embedded journalists did not publish their first reports until 9 December—two days after the original announcement that the operation had commenced. Their journalistic responsibility was subject to particularly sensitive influence, as they were embedded in the patrol in which Sergeant Johnson of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was tragically killed on 8 December by a suspected mine strike. I am pleased to say that they did not report that incident until Sergeant Johnson’s family had been told, through the appropriate channels, and an appropriate period of grace had been observed.

The decision to embed journalists was the right one. They played an important part in ensuring that media reporting of the operation was generally factual and properly balanced, and they did not breach operational security or ignore the needs of the next of kin.

Patrick Mercer: Will the Minister assure me that all the lessons that were learned from the aggressive handling of public relations in Northern Ireland are now thoroughly understood in relation to current operations?

Mr. Ainsworth: I can never give blanket assurances like that, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. One has to learn all the time. Collective memory can sometimes be short. We have to pick up and relearn the lessons of history. Surely, we must try to embed in the armed forces, the MOD and any other organisation the ability to pick up and relearn the lessons that need to be learned and the ability to adapt quickly. So, no, I cannot tell him that every lesson that was learned over 30 years of complex, dangerous operations in Northern Ireland has been learned and remembered by the individuals in the MOD. We have to stay on top of that, and he has to help us to stay on top of that through the processes that we are undertaking today.

I emphasise what I said to the hon. Lady earlier. I agree with much of what she said, but I have concentrated on some of the issues on which I do not agree. I believe that the Musa Qaleh operation was totally successful from beginning to end. We cannot sort out all the ills of our media, but I agree with her reasons for securing the debate.

The Government know that public support and understanding of the activities of the armed forces are important to their long-term success. To that end, we have a duty to share as much information as we can about their work. We should and do, not least through stories about local men, concentrate on regional media and have a regional plan, much along the lines described by the hon. Lady. Moreover, public relations are factored into pre-deployment training, as would be expected. However, we must not confuse the issue. Operational security has the casting vote; it is and will remain the overriding factor that determines whether it is reasonable and safe to release information. That is as true a principle in the Musa Qaleh operation as elsewhere. Any alternative will endanger the lives of our troops. I simply am not prepared to do that, and I am certain that the hon. Lady would not want that either.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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