One of the cheapest journalistic tricks in the book, these days, is to pick up on a perceived problem, cite a couple of quick examples that happen to have passed your desk, shoehorning them into your story even if they don't completely fit, and paste in a few snippets from the archives. Then phone up a few handy "rent-a-quote" sources and keep going until you find one that is prepared to say the words you want to print.
In you really want to go to town, get your "rent-a-quote" to write an opinion piece for you (for a small – and sometimes very large – fee) and then quote them in your article. And once you've cobbled it all together, you can put a big "exclusive" flag on it and get the leader-writing department to tap out a pompous editorial, calling for the resignation of the minister.
That is modern journalism for you – not that it has ever been any different – but if you want a particularly egregious example of the genre, you can do not better than look at yesterday's edition of The Yorkshire Post.
The front page exclusive is a story by staff reporter Lizzie Murphy, with the bold headline across the page is, "Soldiers patch up own vehicles to fight war", complete with a picture purporting to show one of the said patched-up vehicles, a Land Rover WIMIK.
Then there is the strap, reading, "MP slams inadequate equipment for troops", referring to the "rent-a-quote" source, in this case the darling of the Tory right, MP Patrick Mercer, former shadow homeland security spokesman and former Lt. Colonel commanding the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters.
As to the substance of the story (what little there is), the assertion is that "British soldiers in Afghanistan are being forced to patch up old Land Rovers with extra protection in the absence of adequate new vehicles," – and this is "according to a former senior Army officer" – i.e., Patrick Mercer.
It may be, of course, that Mercer actually approached the Yorkshire Post with this detail, or it is possible that Lizzie Murphy contacted him to give authority to her story. Either way, she is able to quote him rather than use her own words, saying that "the vehicles are too old and inadequate to cope with the hostile terrain they are expected to cover".
Now we get to the "cut-and-paste" bit, as our Lizzie writes: "The news comes amid warnings that British forces are stretched to the limit and complaints by senior military figures about poor equipment." Then we are given the one piece of real information, from the mouth of Mercer, who says:
When we arrived they were in the middle of self-help in terms of rivetting large sheets of armour plate to the vehicles, the idea being that this would give a much better form of protection. Engineers are working night and day to protect them. This is not just confined to one regiment – it's happening all over."He adds:
Soldiers will always improve what they are given but the fact is that we have got to have proper customised armoured vehicles, not WMIKs … The point is our troops need proper vehicles to do the job now, we have been asking for them for too long."From here, it is the turn of our Lizzie, who fills in the rest of the space:
Government attempts to update the UK's fleet of armoured vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been criticised for delays and changing requirements. In June the Ministry of Defence announced new upgraded weapons-mounted patrol vehicles will be bought under an Urgent Operational Requirement for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Described by one serving officer as "a Land Rover on steroids", the new vehicles, 130 in total, are expected to be available in 2008.With that, she brings the story towards its conclusion with a paste-in insert from the obligatory "grieving relative", one who – as you can see – has absolutely no qualifications for commenting on the adequacy of WIMIK Land Rovers:
But in the meantime, soldiers, such as the 2nd battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment which is due to go out to Afghanistan in the autumn, will have to cope with the vehicles they have.
Peter Brierley, of Batley, whose son Shaun was killed in a crash in Kuwait in 2003, said soldiers putting their lives on the line should be properly equipped. He added: "If they are out there fighting they should have the best equipment. "These Land Rovers are not adequate. These lads that are fighting and risking their lives every day need better protection."Drawing this all together, the point made about the inadequacy of the WIMIKs is a good one. We have made it, and repeated it many times. On the face of it, therefore, we should be pleased that the Yorkshire Post and Mercer are making an issue of it.
But the fact is, they are not. Look at the piece from the uninvolved readers' perspective and you see that the substance of the complaint is of delay. The "Land Rover on steroids" is not going to be available until 2008. The reasonable inference is that things will improve once the new equipment arrives.
At this point, we need to refer to the picture supplied by the Yorkshire Post and look at the armour that the troops have seen the need to fit. This is arrowed and it is self-evident that it is additional side protection, covering the door.
Now look at a picture of the new "Land Rover on steriods", the Supacat WIMIK – with defence procurement minister Lord Drayson proudly standing beside it, and what do you see? Again, that much is evident – absolutely no protection whatsoever, from the very angle that the troops are currently seeking armour. It is even less than the Land Rover it is intended to replace. Even without its other faults, the vehicle is totally unsuitable for use in Afghanistan.
However, you, the reader, might suggest that it is a little unfair asking a journalist to pick all this up. So it might be (although a little trawling on Google would have put them right), but that did not stop the newspaper – on the basis of its wholly inadequate research - printing a "cutaway" from its own leader, headed: "Bungling Browne betrays soldiers". Thus it intones in its leader:
How many more UK soldiers must die in Iraq and Afghanistan because of equipment failings before complacent Ministers provide them with the necessary protection?For sure, the secretary of state is ultimately responsible for any equipment failures but he, no more than The Yorkshire Post, is an expert in military vehicles. He has to rely on experts and, as we have pointed out before, many of their decisions are lamentable.
But, if the newspaper could not be expected to know these things, Patrick Mercer should. He is a former senior Army officer and, as an MP, has the facilities to find out what the situation really is. But, has Lt. Col. Mercer MP ever asked questions about Land Rovers in the House? Has he ever referred to them in a debate? Don't bother looking. The answer is "no". (Correction: he asked a question in February 2004 in prime minister's questions.)
Yet this does not stop him sounding off in the opinion piece, headed, "Bravest of the brave – the debt we owe to our troops". Writes the gallant Lt. Col:
We have got to face the fact that the Ministry of Defence has been slow to provide the right sort of vehicles and the right numbers. When I was in Afghanistan last month, Yorkshire soldiers from the Grenadier Guards and the Light Dragoons were patrolling in vehicles that were simply exhausted by the terrain and workload.And that is all we get. No suggestions that the replacement WIMIK is a death trap, no suggestion that the Pinzgauer Vector is a death trap – even though it has been in the Booker column. Mercer is probably far too grand to lower himself to such depths as to actually read it. And no recognition at all that there are adequate vehicles available – although not enough of them – and other types are used.
Indeed, the Foresters whom I saw were having to strap additional armour plate to their Land Rovers to give them a reasonable measure of protection. Our troops need proper vehicles to do the job now.
No, from Mercer, all we get is "man-in-pub" talk – "something must be done," he says, not troubling his coiffeured little head to find out what.
And there is the point. Both newspaper and MP are quick to point out that the secretary of state is not doing his job. But they are not doing their jobs either. To be effective, their criticism must be clinically accurate, focused and properly targeted. This woolly piece, and Mercer's comments, are none of those things.
So how about a bit of direct action? The Yorkshire Post can be contacted here and Patrick Mercer here. You might like to ask them both why they seem happy to accept, so uncritically, a dangerous replacement for the Land Rover WIMIK, why they have no comments about the Pinzgauer Vector, and why they are not pushing for more Mastiffs or even Bushmasters.