Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1440-1460)


12 NOVEMBER 2003

  Q1440 Mr Crausby: How do we protect ourselves in the security sense? We have a live fire-fight on the TV, almost being watched in other countries tactically, what do we do to prepare and defend ourselves against that?

  Mr Pawson: The first line of defence against that is the commander with whom the embed is resident. It is his judgment and those of his staff as to whether or not that there is an operational security issue involved. I think we have our views but we are quite clear that it is a matter of security, that is our responsibility in relation to restraining what can be sent rather than other considerations.

  Mr Crausby: Okay.

  Q1441 Rachel Squire: Can I come back to some of your earlier comments on casualty reporting? I certainly appreciate what you said, Mr Pawson, about personnel systems being in place which aim to be flexible enough to suit individuals and families in the very different requirements they would have, particularly in relation to the media. In your comments, Colonel Brook, I thought you very effectively gave a brief summary of just what the difficulties can be in accurately and rapidly establishing the identity clearly and absolutely, the identity of a casualty and then establishing just who should be treated as the next of kin and receive the first report. Can I just ask you to expand on some of the areas of casualty reporting? In preparation for this meeting I have seen this Green Book that exists and the particular paragraphs that are in that in dealing with casualty reporting. Are those basically the guidelines that are in place for the public announcement of United Kingdom casualties and would you like to say whether you are satisfied with them as they are and whether you are also satisfied that they were properly adhered to?

  Mr Pawson: Perhaps I can answer that in a couple of ways. We have found the media to be pretty responsible about wanting to wait until the next of kin have been informed first but there is a limit to their patience. If by another means, and it is usually locally—I mentioned what can happen earlier—the name is known locally they will wait 12 or 24 hours but if one of the next of kin from a split family is overseas and days go by they will not wait that long before going public on the casualty and the family of that casualty. That is the sort of way I mean that we have to respond quickly and in a timely manner. To have an absolute embargo that says until all of the next of kin as written on the person's form have been informed if that is proving very difficult and somebody is away trekking then we have to manage our way through that situation. As I say that is a discussion that we have with personnel people inside the Military of Defence and it is an area among many that is being looked at in the personnel field and we have to come to our conclusion alongside the military and the civilian in general.

  Colonel Brook: Insofar as the Green Book is concerned we realised during the operation that the realities were that there was probably in some circumstances going to be a difference between the incident, an incident reporting there has been a crash, an incident, a fire-fight and a casualty reporting. One of the things we will need to do in the Green Book is look again and see if we can give more sensible advice on the difference between those two things, for us they are the same but an incident with a casualty is our prime concern. The incident itself is something that the press wish to report and we need to be a little cleverer in that regard.

  Q1442 Rachel Squire: Do you plan to talk to the media further given all of the comments that have been made about their massive presence and this 24 hour a day, seven day a week presence with hundreds of organisations all frankly looking for the next headline, have you had and will you have further discussions with the media about frankly just how live the broadcast should be of a casualty occurring? Some of that was touched on, and I remember listening to a report by John Simpson and a decision that was taken about just what the cameras would show, is this an area that you consider needs further discussion with the media?

  Mr Pawson: Yes, in the sense that we have input to put into it but not in the sense that I think it is a broader decision about what is acceptable in terms of taste and decency and when it is acceptable and what level of detail is acceptable, it is one much more for society as a whole. I think my personal position is that I would very much hope that we could avoid causing great deal of distress to a small number of people, friends, colleagues and families of a casualty by avoiding distressing footage, particularly on television, or detailed reports of what happened to them, unless it was absolutely in the broader public interest that it happened. It is not just an interesting sensation, tugging heart strings but we as a society ought to be able to manage that situation. I recognise the argument, which is an entirely legitimate one, in the media about not sanitising war, conflict and shootings and giving a false impression. I would hope that could also be done without (our prime concern in the Ministry of Defence) causing deep distress to the people who are directly involved in it.

  Q1443 Rachel Squire: You mentioned personnel systems are in place, I understand that all three services have their own personnel branches, can I ask how you manage to coordinate between them and again whether there are any particular improvements that need to be made or whether it acted effectively?

  Mr Pawson: This is an area that is being looked at as a matter of urgency. The people responsible for the personnel policy are very aware of the benefits of standardised procedures in relation to people on operations.

  Q1444 Rachel Squire: You have mentioned some of the discussions that take place with families and how they want to deal with the media, can you elaborate a little on what kind of support there is in the days afterwards when a large number of media may well decide to park themselves on a bereaved families front doorstep even though they do not want that? What kind of support is provided on a daily basis to a family who is being put under tremendous pressure to give some report to the press which they do not always want to?

  Mr Pawson: We will offer them a media adviser who can both act to a certain extent as a shield and also as an adviser in the best way in which to manage the pressure, the pressure can be different on different families in different ways. It may be that if you have a photograph of the person and you can say a bit about them that will largely satisfy the media, on other occasions it will not. It is very much trying to tailor it to the wishes of the family. As I said earlier the family is not necessarily a simple concept any more and it is an area where there is obviously a great deal of grief and emotion and a great deal of sensitivity is required but we are guided by the wishes of the family.

  Q1445 Mr Jones: Can I return to this issue of the use of pictures, a quote from Jeremy Thompson, he said "I think we are all aware there is going to be a point soon when somebody is going to die live in front of camera". That is a very real concern that we all have, first of all do you agree with that and if so how do you plan for that terrible prospect?

  Mr Pawson: I do agree it is a concern if only because at the time of day which this is taking place there may be children watching, and that is not manageable. It is back to the sense of taste and decency, essentially with the media taking a decision to introduce at least a small time lapse in the loop in which distressing pictures can be removed.

  Q1446 Mr Jones: Have you had similar discussions?

  Mr Pawson: There have been a number debates about this in a variety of fora, we have not had a formal discussion with the media about this.

  Q1447 Mr Jones: Is it something that you think should be looked at seriously, certainly if you are going to have embedded journalists with a lot of cameras? The worse thing would be for a husband or a wife or a mother to see their son or daughter killed live on television, would it not?

  Mr Pawson: That is absolutely our concern, identifiable, realtime, close to realtime and extremely distressing.

  Q1448 Mr Cran: Over to accuracy and fairness, not accuracy and fairness in relation to the press in this instance, accuracy and fairness in relation to the MoD, fairly consistent criticism has been made to this Committee that successes have been announced before they were achieved and that leads to the breakdown of confidence with one another between the MoD on one hand and journalists on the other. Alex Thomson gave us a number of examples and I would like you to comment on the general proposition and also on the examples that he has given us: The fall of Um Qasr, that did not fall until several days after Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons it had. Mr Pawson you said you err on the side of authoritativeness when there are statements to be made to the House of Commons, you have not impressed Mr Thomson. He also cited that the first uprise in Basra turned out not to exist, the second uprise in Basra did not exist and then the tank column coming out of Basra turned out not to exist. These are serious complaints by the press of you and of the military, what are your comments?

  Mr Pawson: I think, as I tried explain to earlier, the fact that in the Um Qasr area the fortunes of war changed during that period did not mean, as I say, that we in any way misled with this implication of deliberately giving false information. The information that we gave was given in good faith the best we knew it at that time and we had no reason at that time to doubt it. The question of time, particularly for comment—and I think most of his were taken from theatre, etc, with the exception of Um Qasr, as I say—is a very difficult one and the balance is one that we strive to maintain. There is usually a case that there is a basis for what is happening, certainly in relation to Um Qasr it was not totally well-defended, we were not in there and we could not go round and challenge. It was not one hundred% secure for people to walk round in their suits. There was sort of an incident that appeared to be an uprising, I understand with the benefit of hindsight that some policemen had been ordered by Baathists to shoot some of the population and they refused and were shot themselves, but it was in a particular quarter of Basra, it was not an uprising. Whose responsibility it is that an incident becomes a huge uprising I am not clear about, I am not sure we will ever be clear. What does happen is the sort of relationship I described earlier whereby a partial but accurate picture is made at a particular command level, it is then recycled through and one is damned if one does and damned if one does not, either you confirm it or you do not know what on earth is going on. I think that is quite a difficult position in terms of what professional people expect to find themselves in.

  Q1449 Mr Cran: It is hardly satisfactory?

  Mr Pawson: If it was widespread it would be highly unsatisfactory.

  Q1450 Mr Cran: I am not sure I agree with that either, a fact is a fact or it is not. There was an uprising, to take the example that was given by Thomson, or there was not. Maybe there was a predisposition on occasion to fire just a wee bit too quick off the draw. It is not a fair comment on this to say, "well, it did not happen often, it does not matter", well I think it does. What were you seeking to put out?

  Mr Pawson: I was seeking to address a number of incidents. How many hundreds were right as opposed to, say, a few that were wrong? I am not seeking to say those that are wrong were unimportant because there are lessens to be learned from that, and we clearly learned lessons and that everything is not just what it seems to be at first sight, sometime it is and sometimes it is not. As I also said earlier we do try and correct those at the first opportunity we can. Things have moved on by then, particularly in media terms, but nevertheless that is quite clearly what we aim to do and what we try to do the whole time. The judgment of when something is sufficiently well known for a spokesperson to judge that it is safe to do so is a difficult one. I am certain we do not get it right one hundred% of the time, the assessment is an operational one on which a spokesman relies. We did not get it right one hundred% of the time, I admit that. Then equally I think if you take a step back and look at the broad portrayal of what has happened in Iraq and the way that is portrayed in the media by our spokes people in theatre, embedded on the ground the broad picture was successfully put out into the public domain.

  Q1451 Mr Cran: Thank you for that. I have to say to you that the criticism is fairly persistent, it just does not accord with the picture that you have been giving us. To finish this off, have you, meaning the MoD, received representations from the press on this whole question of their being fed duff information?

  Mr Pawson: At the seminars where we have been where the media have been there they have said we were wrong about that and we were saying we were premature in some incidents, for example Um Qasr. We were not expecting fighters to be in civilian clothes, so it was wrong, but all we are saying is that when you report it obviously it is fair for you to say that the reports that it was entirely safe were wrong, but that is different from saying that the MoD lied to us.

  Q1452 Mr Cran: I never used that word, I did not.

  Mr Pawson: That is the distinction which I think is important to make.

  Q1453 Mr Cran: The distinction I am making is just perhaps on occasion, and I put it no higher than this, maybe you just drew the gun and fired a little too quickly, in other words you let the information out that such and such had happened in the expectation that it was almost there but not quite. That is all I am saying.

  Mr Pawson: Or it was not wholly corroborated or it was not sufficiently firm so the situation does change, they are fluid situations.

  Q1454 Mr Cran: Are there one or two lessons to be learned?

  Mr Pawson: I agree absolutely this balance and tension between timeliness and accuracy and authoritativeness is a difficult one to draw in an operational situation particularly.

  Q1455 Mr Crausby: We were told by the journalists we interviewed there were some examples of inappropriate censorship and they put them down to inexperienced and untrained media officers rather than in a malicious sense, what assessment have you made of how individual units and commands managed their relations with journalists?

  Mr Pawson: What I think is a lesson for the future is, as Colonel Brook said, an operation of this scale catering for the needs of the media stretched us. I think in future what we need to do is to get our training, our equipping and our identification of personnel, those sort of issues, on a more systematic footing because you are right, some of the media said there was inexperienced people that were handling it with them and we would want to up that experience and that quality so we could avoid a situation where people do not feel confident or unsure of their relationship. I am not saying that it does not take two to tango, I think it does, but nevertheless the leading partner should be properly trained.

  Q1456 Mr Crausby: We are concerned about a small number of inappropriate censorships and they made the point this occurred in operations that went pretty well. They questioned what the situation would be in an operation that did not go well where we were taking casualties, in what circumstances would you have not allowed an embedded journalist to file a report?

  Mr Pawson: The fact is that it was quite clearly operational security and that was spelt out in our instructions and guidance notes as to what that did and did not cover. I am not sure we would accept that there was censorship other than that because I think some journalists use censorship in the sense that "we were not allowed to travel where we wanted so therefore we were censored". That is not really what most people understand by censorship, of course they were constrained by whether the unit was operating, what the unit was doing and how safe it was to go right up to the front with reconnaissance units. I do not see that as censorship, that is safety.

  Colonel Brook: There were really only two occasions where we had any concerns, one was where the actual electronic emission, a satellite phone, something like that, could result in that unit and indeed that journalist being targeted by the other side and where the information that they put into their report would have a demonstrable impact on the future operation and the safety of our own troops and indeed that unit that was concerned, other than that we thought it went particularly successful with the media very quickly, remember they only deployed a matter of a week before the combat operations really started, very quickly starting to understand the difference between information that was good to put into the public domain and information that was sensitive which they should hold back for a while until that particular part of the operation had unfolded a little more.

  Q1457 Mr Crausby: Will you accept that censorship would be appropriate in a really bad news story where British troops were retreating and taking casualties, what about the effect on morale if there is a really, really poor story which reflects very badly on the soldiers concerned, would you accept that should not go in?

  Colonel Brook: I am not sure in the modern media environment the ability to close information down to that extent is possible, particularly if there are non-war correspondents, the independent journalists talking to other people, including talking to the other side, it would be very difficult to keep that information away.

  Q1458 Mr Crausby: Would it be wrong to try and keep that information away?

  Colonel Brook: I think it would be wrong.

  Mr Pawson: I think it is a subtle area as to when a general threat becomes particular in terms of threat to life or when it becomes a threat to operational success. Clearly if it is an electronic emission giving away the location of a unit to an advancing party, and we expect the opposition to be able to read that, that is something that clearly endangers lives, or a general report back from the front of the conditions in which soldiers are fighting. If it is a report about the unit next door to you crumbling and you know your flank is going and therefore you are likely to lose life yourself you enter into a grey area, quite a subtle area.

  Q1459 Rachel Squire: Following on from some of your comments about satellite emissions and some of what has been referred to certainly by Richard Sambrook, the BBC director of current affairs, in his address to Royal United Services Institute he described the new media, "new journalists producing new news who have little regard for those of us in the traditional media, with a laptop and a phone connection and with a website than can broadcast from anywhere unregulated". He then refers to some of the websites that were created, reporting all sorts of news from Baghdad, Russia's views, and so on, to views that have been expressed by military planners which have been slow to keep up with such changes in the journalistic profession, often applying the lessons of the last conflict to the next one without perhaps appreciating how far things have moved on, particularly with this 24 hour news cycle. Can I ask, how did you try and engage with this new media during operation Telic and what monitoring did you do of the new media output?

  Mr Pawson: First I could say what we did, we set up our website at the end of January, between there and the end of April we had an average of 25,000 hits, a maximum of 42,000, so over 800,000 overall and that will not be the total number because—

  Q1460 Rachel Squire: 25,000 hits per day?

  Mr Pawson: At its peak it was 42,000 when we were on the hotmail home page. That will not be the full reflection because as you are aware local service providers provide local packages so if you picked it up very recently they will not re-access they will provide it from the network. People stayed between five and ten minutes on our website on average, which I thought was much longer than I had been expecting. We had much more video downloads, we had 100,000 downloads of video equipment, which was much more than we were expecting. We had a picture library of publishing quality, which was some 600 pictures which was also widely used. It was also extremely helpful to the media we found in relation to (A), the rather sad business of casualties that was referred to and (B) as a tri-service record of the forces who were deployed to the Gulf and into Iraq. Our website was out there with the others. We have not found a way of controlling the worldwide web and the other websites to which you refer, which can put anything they like on it, any comment and, as Richard Sambrook said, without editorial controls of any sort that we are used to in the West. I don't have a solution to that problem. I think we would want to be sure that our embeds were not engaged in that business, we have an accreditation process, that they are chosen through the Societies and the Broadcasters should ensure that. Your more general point, I mentioned that the technology had moved ahead, we are aware of this. I think it is something that we will pay attention to in future, that is one of the lessons, we have to keep up to date with the technology in the media. Some commentators suggest that future, major American networks will have their own UAVs, for example, sending straight back from the battleground particularly as unilateral journalism in high-intensity conflict has become so dangerous as it has this time. We are aware of the developments, I just hope we can keep up with them.

  Rachel Squire: Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you both very much, it was very, very interesting.

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