Monday, June 22, 2009

Lies about lies

It was never the case that the MoD was going to take the charge of lying without attempting a comeback and, sure enough, after Stephen Grey's piece in The Guardian that we looked at last week, Nick Gurr, the MoD's Director of Media and Communications, has tried his hand at a rebuttal on the MoD website.

Addressing the issues that the "MOD is restricting access to conflict zones" and that journalists have been "lied to and censored", Gurr deals with each in turn.

The points he makes on the access issue look eminently reasonable, stating the obvious – that air transport to theatre is limited and that there is an increasing demand for media access, which cannot be met. Gurr would have it that the MoD is doing its best, the number of media visits to operational theatres (Iraq and Afghanistan) having increased from 152 in the year to Oct 2007 to 246 in the year to May 2009. For Afghanistan during the same period they rose from 90 to 116 - an increase of more than 25 percent.

What Gurr does not say though is that much of the increase is through a programme of encouraging reporters from regional and local papers to follow their home regiments – ranks of very often inexperienced and compliant journalists, many of whom (not all) who lack specialist knowledge and thus are easy prey for the military propaganda machine.

An example of this comes with a recent piece from Harry Miller of the Surrey Comet, writing about a re-supply mission to a patrol base 2km west of the Musa Qala District Centre.

He travels with the 3 Scots in "some of the newly delivered Jackal armoured vehicles, used for reconnaissance, rapid assault, fire support and convoy protection." These, presumably, are the Jackal 2s, the virtues of which Miller extols, telling us that, "The new design of the vehicles has meant that Improvised Explosive Devices are having less of the desired effect and crews are much more likely to survive the impact with only minimal injuries."

Following on from Harding's piece on 1 June, expressing "safety concerns" about the Jackals, no self-respecting specialist defence correspondent would have written such an uncritical piece.

For the MoD to have got Miller to have written such a glowing testament – which could only have been repeating what he had been told – was, therefore, something of a coup, representing hard core propaganda from an unwitting journalist.

Yet, four days after the piece was published, Major Sean Burchall was killed – the most senior British Army officer to date in Afghanistan – in a Jackal. It may well have been a Jackal 2. Yet, while the MoD is happy to see "puffs" for the Jackal, when it comes to bad publicity for the machine, the MoD website is curiously silent.

Throughout the piece on Burchall's death, there is no mention of the Jackal, reference being made only to "armoured vehicles", a description which would not normally be applied to this equipment.

To favour relatively impressionable reporters, which then justifies restricting more frequent access by experienced journalists, and then to omit details of the Jackal in the press release, cannot be called lying or anything so obvious. But these are nonetheless classic examples of how the MoD seeks to manipulate the message to the public.

Gurr, however, claims that the MoD "wants the media to see first hand the efforts of our forces in Afghanistan", to which effect he argues that "our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are our best advocates," on which basis it is "in our interests to get the media there to see it for themselves." We owe it to our forces to ensure their story is told, adds Gurr.

In fact, though, the MoD's prime concern is to get the media to report the "story" it wants them to report. Those journalists who are compliant find that the MoD cannot be too helpful. Those who question the official line find that all sorts of difficulties arise when they want access to theatre or want to talk to people on the ground.

If this is the subtle – and deniable – end of media control, the plain lie is also a tool of the trade. But, to be credible, the lie must be denied. Thus does Gurr aver, "We don't tell lies. We are not allowed to." Of course, this is a lie.

We have far too many examples of outright lies from the MoD to believe otherwise – from the denial that there was major fighting in al Amarah during the height on the Mahdi uprising in 2005, to the false expectations raised on the conduct of Operation Sinbad in late 2007 to the falsehoods perpetrated over the recovery of Musa Qala, pretending that it was an Afghan-led operation.

The strict definition of the lie, however, encompasses more than just the telling of an untruth. It takes in not only the act, but default or sufferance – the processes of allowing untruths to be perpetuated for want of interventions that would correct them.

These are the common fare of the MoD but its tenuous grasp of the meaning of truth leads it further down the path of deception than can be imagined. One classic – and frequently employed stratagem – is to keep quiet about operations which would be of interest to specialists, using its own staff or journalists to cover the events and then only to publish the details if they go to plan – whatever the plan was.

That was the strategy adopted with Operation Sond Chara (Operation Red Dagger), over Christmas last. No embeds were present through the whole operation and only a very carefully sanitised version was released to the public.

The same goes, of course, for the deaths of individual soldiers. Stephen Grey complained that there was less coverage of British deaths than they deserve because the MOD was not getting journalists to the front line. Gurr disagrees, declaring that his organisation produces detailed eulogies "for all our people who are killed in action." That might be the case but, as we have seen with Major Burchall, the releases published by the MoD rarely include any significant operational detail.

For all Gurr's protests, though, he himself is most revealing about the real agenda. "There is a good story to be told in Afghanistan about all the things our forces are achieving in the toughest part of the theatre," he writes. "We want this story told and we want journalists there to help tell it." The journalists are there to tell the "good" story, and it is Gurr's job to make that happen.