Friday, July 03, 2009

How the media blew it

I first heard that there had been another IED strike on a Viking early Wednesday evening, long before there was any media coverage. This was from Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph, who told me two soldiers had been killed, and more injured.

At that time, we did not know that Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe had been killed. Thus, to us, there was only one story – another example of men being killed in the perilously inadequate Viking, so lightly armoured that it is incapable of resisting even a minor IED hit under the belly or tracks.

As the details of Thorneloe's death came in the following morning, to us the tenor of the story did not change. In fact, it reinforced the line and made it both more tragic and more outrageous. Although every death counts, there is still something special about a senior officer – and a very highly regarded one at that – being killed. The utter, devastating waste of life, arising from this useless vehicle, was very much in our minds.

Harding's story reflected that outrage. On the other hand, Newton Dunn who went out early breaking the embargo to claim an "exclusive" for The Sun, focuses on the claimed "massive hidden bomb" rather than the vulnerability of the Viking.

Michael Evans, who has previously written about the Viking, followed up with a piece in The Times. He thus wrote of "the rising number of deaths among soldiers travelling in Vikings, which are driven by the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group" and of the "growing concern to the troops in Helmand."

From there, however, it went downhill. The story was then covered by The Daily Mail which focused mainly on the fact that Thorneloe was the highest ranking casualty since the Falklands.

Initially, The Guardian pasted in a Press Association release, which made no mention of the Viking. On its own though, the Press Association offers another piece, with the headline, "Commanding officer shot in Helmand". This is picked up, uncritically by hundreds of local papers throughout the land, not a brain cell between them as they paste it into their websites.

Needless to say, the vehicle was only briefly mentioned by the BBC, without comment. Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent of The Independent also fails to pick up the thread.

Then The Guardian followed up with a piece by Richard Norton-Taylor. He, like Newton Dunn, retailed a description of a "huge bomb" that shattered the armoured Viking tracked vehicle. This time though, that detail came from a "defence official", reflecting the MoD's determination to "talk up" the size of the IED in order to divert attention from the weakness of the Viking. Even in death, politics plays its part.

Here, The Daily Express excels itself. Col Thorneloe, it tells us, was travelling in a tracked Viking armoured vehicle when it was hit by a blast from an IED. Then, trotting out pure, undiluted MoD-ese, it tells us, "The Vikings have been given extra armour but nothing can guarantee protection if a bomb is big enough."

With the news out, the MoD posted some details of the incident itself.

We are told that the two soldiers were killed by an explosion whilst on convoy along the Shamalan Canal, near Lashkar Gah. Travelling in a Viking, Lt Col Thorneloe had left the Battle Group Headquarters on a resupply convoy so that he could visit his men. At 1520hrs local time an IED was detonated under this vehicle. Lt Col Thorneloe and Tpr Hammond were killed by the blast.

The rest of the lengthy post is taken up with eulogies, the text forming the bulk of the copy used by the media, drowning the limited operational detail.

The Times follows this line. Despite Michael Evans offering critical detail of the Viking, his newspaper offers a "commentary" by Crispin Black discussing how "Rupert Thorneloe's death will affect Welsh Guardsmen deeply", with not a word about the manner of his untimely death.

In a second piece, Tom Coghlan offered his reflections of Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the man, and then another piece where he described an earlier ambush on a Viking supply convoy, completely missing the point. How the MoD must love him. We will review this piece separately.

James Blitz of the Financial Times came in with his own piece. By now, the MoD was briefing freely and the focus again was entirely on the "commanding officer" aspect of the death. The MoD was cited as saying that only six Army COs have died on operations in command of their units since 1948.

There was no reference at all to the Viking. This, and its extreme vulnerability to IEDs, was gradually being filtered out of the narrative as the "damage limitation" mechanisms went to work.

Reuters had its staff reporter Peter Griffiths write up the story. He also failed to include details of the Viking. This report will be reproduced in thousands of MSM reports.

So it was that, progressively, an "inconvenient truth" was buried. The Viking has been written out of the script, and with it the dire role of the MoD in providing completely inadequate equipment. Unable to see beyond the narrow confines of a story and lacking the imagination and skills to report the real story, the media pack has sold the pass. Of the blogs though, at least A Tangled Web got the point.

But when men (and women) continue to die, who will share the blame? Not the media, of course. They just report the news.