England expects new press gangs to nab nerds

The Royal Navy is homing in on internet users in the belief that today's computer geeks could be tomorrow's commanders. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online
UNTIL the early 19th century, the Royal Navy's idea of a recruitment campaign amounted to coshing any inebriated unfortunate they could find and forcing him into service.

But the modern naval press gang, which will be launched next week, will operate not in the shadows of inns of ill-repute, but in Britain's growing network of cyber cafes.

Faced with a shortage of computer-literate ratings, the Navy is now less interested in a potential recruit's fighting prowess than the cut of his anorak. Today's computer nerd, navy chiefs believe, could be tomorrow's battleship commander. "We want people who are at ease with modern communications," said a Navy source.

From next week, the Navy will be recruiting from 40 cyber cafes, through an arrangement which allows it to advertise its white ensign emblem on all computer terminals. The hope is that instead of surfing the web, the cyber cafe client will be sufficiently intrigued by the Navy logo to click on to its recruitment site, which features a 30-second promotional video.

"We think there are lots of people out there who surf the Net in their lunch-times," said the source. "People in boring office jobs who would swap that lifestyle for a naval career if they knew about it."

The Navy anticipates that the three-month cyber cafe campaign will put it in touch with 450,000 potential recruits, including university students using campus cyber cafes.

The service has some 5,500 jobs to fill and has a marked shortage of operator mechanics with the technical expertise to troubleshoot in the heat of a warship's operations room.

The Navy recruitment initiative - trendily catchlined "Saltwater surfin" - is the latest ploy in what has developed into an inter-service contest to be seen as the most progressive employer. Once a white male bastion that sought to appeal to a sense of patriotism, discipline and tradition, the military now wants to be seen as multicultural, women-friendly - and cutting edge.

On Friday, the Army summoned television cameras to the Ministry of Defence to unveil its new advertising campaign, boasting that it was "the first time any company or organisation has taken such a high-profile approach to equal opportunities".

This followed another campaign, launched in October, where the face of Ghanaian-born Captain Fidelix Datson was substituted on to the famous "Your Country Needs You" recruitment poster of 1914, featuring Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.

In January, the Independent revealed that the Navy wanted to recruit Muslim women into the Wrens to show that it was truly representative of British society.

Not to be outdone, the Royal Air Force then issued a directive to all ranks, "setting down in simple terms what is expected of them in accepting people from different ethnic backgrounds and accepting women".

The transformation follows a succession of damning independent reports and embarrassing industrial tribunal hearings detailing horrendous examples of racism within the armed forces.

Further pressure will come from tomorrow's publication by the Fabian Society of a revised edition of a pamphlet written by serving Army major Eric Joyce, criticising the military's record in tackling prejudice in the ranks.

Last month, the armed forces narrowly escaped prosecution for corporate racism when it agreed to enter into a five-year partnership with the Commission for Racial Equality. The MoD has agreed to boost recruitment among ethnic minorities to two per cent per year, rising to five per cent in five years time.

The only area of equal opportunities consistently ignored by the military is that of sexual orientation. The signing up of gay and lesbian recruits is still vehemently opposed by senior officers and Labour ministers alike.

The Independent revealed in February that the Navy was to place two wrens in charge of warships for the first time. But the steady progress made by women in some parts of the military has been undermined by a succession of high-profile court cases detailing sexual liaisons.

Last week, a court martial at Aldershot heard from Naval Lieutenant-Commander Karen Pearce that she had been hounded by Army Lieutenant-Colonel Keith Pople with whom she had ended an affair.