MoD vs the press: on the front line in Iraq's other war

Deaths among Black Watch soldiers have meant a stream of damaging stories and put the Government and journalists on collision course. Jane Thynne reports on a relationship that is strained to breaking point
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The Independent Online

As they do every year, press and politicians will converge today for the annual Remembrance Sunday services. But this year the relationship between those newspapers and the Government officials they liaise with appears to have reached an all-time low.

As they do every year, press and politicians will converge today for the annual Remembrance Sunday services. But this year the relationship between those newspapers and the Government officials they liaise with appears to have reached an all-time low.

For the Ministry of Defence press office, charged with handling the flow of news from Iraq, each fresh PR nightmare adds to ever more tense relations with the media it serves. The belief now is that the hostility between ministry and media has grown so acute that defence chiefs are preparing to make representations to the Government after the general election, demanding change.

"In 30 years I've never known the relationship as bad, not even during Northern Ireland," says Robert Fox, the senior defence writer. "It's appalling and I would go so far as to say it's operationally dangerous. In the case of the Black Watch they flagged for so long where the battalion was going and there was only one route they could take - that's a tremendous mishandling."

Other journalists report "overt hostility", "a non-relationship" and "downright lack of interest" from the MoD press office, specifically since the arrival of Geoff Hoon as Defence Secretary. "It's don't phone us, we'll phone you. They can take two hours to reply when you know from someone in the back room that they've got the answer right in front of them. They're not at all helpful and at the end of every question there's an invisible sigh down the phone," said another journalist. "They've got a bunker mentality because they don't get any good news about Iraq, and I imagine they dread every phone call, but the point is they're supposed to be impartial, aren't they?"

For its part, the MoD is angered at the way it is treated in the press. Such is the annoyance about the coverage from The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs - the traditional newspapers of armed service families - that Geoff Hoon is understood to have written to the new proprietors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, with a list of complaints. If he expected a positive response, he cannot have enjoyed the result. Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, commissioned a piece from Max Hastings which described Hoon as "born to be town clerk of Bootle rather than Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Defence" and attackedthe Government's public management of the war, including the "shameful and draconian injunctions against opening their mouths" issued to senior military officials.

This attempt to clamp down on relationships between journalists and senior members of the armed services, is cited by several correspondents as a serious obstacle to responsible communication. When Labour came into power certain military figures are understood to have been sent letters requesting that they should not deal directly with the press - instructions not always treated with due gravity. "A friend of mine, a very senior military man, rang me and said 'I'm just notifying you that I can't speak to you and now I'm throwing the letter in the bin'," one correspondent comments.

Yet journalists claim that close relationships with military comman- ders increase, rather than imperil, security. "There's a level of trust between military and media that can be useful. Such an uncontrolled situation as you have now allows speculation to become rampant," one correspondent says.

As Dominic Lawson puts it: "We're absolutely inclined to believe what senior and experienced military officers tell us and not inclined, through bitter experience, to take on trust what politicians tell us." Many of the difficulties stem from the Hutton report, described as "a milestone moment" in relations between the MoD and the media.

Earlier this month members of the armed forces and MoD officials were told they could not say anything which conflicts with government policy and that even communicating with journalists or disclosing information to them without authority could lead to legal action or dismissal. That advice also requires MoD officials to tell the ministry's press office when "novel or contentious information" is released under the Freedom of Information Act. That act comes into force in January, and is expected to spark a fresh round of tension between media and ministry over the issue of defence procurement.

Yet relationships with the press are not the only headache for the Ministry of Defence in its efforts to control the flow of news. The level of protest emanating from bereaved families and serving soldiers is thought to be unprecedented in Britain in a time of war.

While the Ministry of Defence denied that it had banned families of Black Watch soldiers from talking (and those families insisted that they had been told by officers of their own battalion to avoid journalists), that didn't stop Craig Lowe, the brother of Private Paul Lowe, a Black Watch soldier killed by a suicide car bomber, and himself a serving soldier, telling the media: "We think Bush is an arsehole for starting a war over nothing. Trying to get money and oil. That's what Paul thought."

In an age of 24-hour information and the internet, controlling access to journalists no longer plugs holes in the dam. Bloggers, email and burgeoning websites offer forums for soldiers and families to express sentiments that might not have been aired in earlier engagements. The Black Watch website contains hundreds of angry messages from families and serving members, with savage attacks on MPs and Tony Blair, demanding troops be withdrawn.

The MoD was so concerned by the claims of Rose Gentle about the manner of her teenage son's death from a roadside bomb in June, that it employed a Defence Advisory notice - the voluntary system by which media agree not to discuss issues in the cause of national security. The DA notice of 3 September stated that after "the recent press conference given by the family of the late Fusilier Gordon Gentle" certain issues should not be discussed in news coverage in any more than "general" terms.

The difficulties of reporting the Iraq war concerns the International Federation of Journalists. "It's very dangerous that there's never been a clear establishment of workable rules between the military and the media, and as you go into a unique situation like Iraq it becomes more and more obvious that they're desperately needed," says a spokesman.

No one within the MoD is denying the difficulty of relations, but sources say they are optimistic about improvement. "It's been a difficult couple of years and a lot of coverage has been speculative at best, mischievous at worst, but we're keen to get through to a more healthy relationship."