Tuesday 10 April 2007

Exposed and vulnerable

It must now be evident to knowledgeable defence watchers that the position of First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band (seen here playing with one of his toys), is untenable. His authority is spent.

Earlier Naval careers have foundered over mishaps with capital ships, as was the fate of the martinet Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon when 358 crew were drowned after the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893. By contrast, the proximate cause of Admiral Band's demise is the loss of two rubber boats and the temporary detention of their crews by a hostile nation.

In fact, though, it is now coming clear that his greater sin has been to orchestrate a cover-up, attempting to obscure the reasons why the boats and their crews were captured.

But, in giving permission to the "frightened fifteen" to sell their stories to the media, bouncing his political masters into acquiescence, Band went too far. Yesterday, the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne, struck back, rescinding the permission with only the tiniest fig-leaf to spare the Admiral's blushes.

Even then, that was considerably more than he deserved, as his public support for the "frightened fifteen" and then his permission to publish their stories has produced such gut-wrenchingly sickening copy that it has made a laughing stock of the Royal Navy and our nation. Forget Leading Seaman Turney and her appearance in The Sun yesterday, followed by her "star" performance on ITV1, and dwell for a moment on an extract from the account of the youngest crew member, Seaman Arthur Batchelor, published in The Daily Mirror:

Arthur said: "I missed Topsy [Leading Seaman Faye Turney] most of all. I really love her, as a mum and a big sister. Not seeing her and not knowing if she was safe was one of the hardest parts of the whole thing. Then on the sixth day, when I was just about giving up hope, I was pulled from my bed in the early hours of the morning. They led me down a corridor and into a room, where I saw Topsy in a corner. I can't describe how that felt... just every emotion rolled into one. I ran up to her, threw my arms round her and cried like a baby. When I'd calmed down, she asked, 'Do you need another hug, a mother hug?' and I said, 'damn right'.
Des Browne may yet regret declaring that the Navy, in allowing this drivel to reach the public domain, was making a "tough call". Not even Admiral Byng managed to humiliate the nation so comprehensively, especially now as the Iranians have retaliated by releasing more video footage purporting to show how well the hostages were treated. Little Green Footballs has the link (video "grabs" below).

Such is the utter fatuity of the media, however, that – with only a very few honourable exceptions – most journalists have not even begun to wake up to the underlying issues, and the reinstatement of the publication ban is still being treated on the level of a soap opera.

But, with the "human interest" element now cut off at source – and the story unresolved – we may now see some of the media turn to the substantive issue as to why the boarding crew was put in such an exposed and vulnerable position. Gradually, the truth may emerge.

All of that puts the Navy itself in an exposed and vulnerable position. Expected imminently is an announcement on the building of the two aircraft carriers, for which the Senior Service has mortgaged its future, at an expected cost of £3.5 billion.

Such is the perception of weakness the Navy has brought upon itself, however, that there would be barely be any public protest if the order was not to materialise. After all, on current form, the Navy would simply hand over the ships to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at the first opportunity.

Possibly, the situation may be recoverable, but the politicians are going to have to act fast. Robust action to rid the Navy of some of its dead wood is needed as an immediate confidence-builder, plus measures to restore a fighting spirit into a Service that seems to have gone soft.