Sunday 15 April 2007

How could they do otherwise?

I do wish I was clever, like those Sunday Telegraph journalists, who can waft effortlessly through life, delivering their ex deus pronouncements with such easy authority that one can only fall to one's knees and thank the Almighty that such gifted people walk the Earth amongst us.

How else would we find out, other than from the mighty pens (or keyboards) of those giants of modern journalism, Sean Rayment and Patrick Hennessy, who have "revealed" that a catalogue of "inexcusable" errors in the office of the Defence Secretary led to the story-telling fiasco over the sailors taken hostage in Iran?

Faced with such penetrating insight, need one read a single word more to know, without one scintilla of doubt or expending one nanosecond of thought, where the guilt lies?

However, for us lesser mortals, who are slower on the uptake than the towering intellects of the Front Page, the Great Gods of the Leader Writing Department have descended from Upon High to deliver unto us their mighty judgement. "We do not need an inquiry," they intone,

…to establish whose fault it is that the hostages were allowed to sell their stories. The controlling doctrine of British ministerial office is that "officials advise, ministers decide". The duties of Mr Browne's office do not require him always to be right. They do require him to ensure he is able to make well-informed, reasonable choices given the information that is available. It is clear that Mr Browne failed to meet that elementary demand.
Thus does the Leader pronounce its verdict: "Mr Browne has no defence". He is guilty as charged, m'lud – tried in absentia and found wanting in the air-conditioned offices of The Sunday Telegraph. Resignation is the least he can do. If a firing squad on the quarterdeck of HMS Cornwall was an option, this too might have been demanded.

It is not enough, of course, that one small voice, in the form of Christopher Booker's column, might actually demur. Who is this right wing demagogue – cast in the unlikely role of defender of a Labour secretary of state (which just goes to show how unreliable he is)? Who is he to cast doubt upon the Judgement of the Great Leader Writer?

However, a defence of sorts also comes from a slightly more substantial source – in circulation terms at least – no less than The Sunday Times. Buried in its Focus piece – so deeply that it did not fully lodge on first reading - is an account that matches and thereby completely supports the Booker view, with added detail that puts the whole affair in context.

Written by Michael Smith (for whom we have no love) and Maurice Chittenden, it tells of how the Royal Navy, sidelined by the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, feeling unloved and unwanted, has been struggling to keep its place in the (taxpayer-funded) sun. Thus do Smith and Chittenden set the scene:

Fearing further decline, navy chiefs ordered a publicity drive centred around HMS Cornwall, a frigate sent to take over last month as flagship of Task Force 158, the allied flotilla protecting the Iraqi oil installations and territorial waters.

Television crews from Sky and the BBC were flown on board the ship to film the crew at work monitoring the northern Gulf; Cornwall was to be the front-page story in Navy News, the navy's in-house journal. But from the start the publicity drive went awry.

Cornwall, known as "the ice-cream frigate" because of its designation F99, travelled to the Gulf via Barcelona, Malta and Croatia. Along the way the crew engaged in a series of sporting events with local teams; they lost every match (shown above is a "happy snap" of the hockey team in Valetta and below is some of the crew having a jolly time in a boat race with locals in Vela Luka).

The holiday atmosphere seems to have continued when Cornwall arrived in the Gulf, amid suspicions that the crew were also distracted by the presence of the television cameras.

Despite the rants of armchair admirals, many senior figures accept that the poorly armed patrol had little choice but to surrender when it was surrounded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards while checking a ship in Iraqi waters.

However, there is fury that their only real protection, a Lynx helicopter with a heavy machinegun, was pulled off apparently without consulting or even informing them.

And there is bewilderment at the complete failure of Cornwall, with its sophisticated radar and signals intelligence equipment, to detect the Iranian vessels operating in the Iraqi territorial waters that the ship was supposed to protect.
With that, we come to the beef:

As questions mounted over the operational failings after the 15 sailors and marines were captured, the navy frantically cast around for some way of retrieving the situation….

Lieutenant Colonel Andy Price, head of the navy's media operations … began drafting a strategy for the return of the sailors and marines… His hope … was to deflect attention away from the failings of Cornwall's operation and to concentrate instead on the treatment of the captives by the Iranians.

Price and the media centre advised that the captives give a press conference and interviews where they talked only about their arrest and subsequent treatment.
Like it or not – and the Tory Tribe will hate it (see the comments) – here is corroboration of the very thesis expounded in the Booker column and on the blog, that the Navy mounted an elaborate media operation to divert attention from the operational failings of HMS Cornwall and, although he is not named, Commodore Nick Lambert.

Furthermore, what begins to be clearer from this account is something that has been puzzling us for some time – the apparent involvement of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jonathon Band. In the ordinary course of events, one might expect that, when a mere Commodore had fouled up (hardly a unique event in the history of the Royal Navy), the head of the Navy would simply throw him to the wolves (aka a Board of Inquiry) and distance himself from the events.

In this case, however, we have remarked earlier that Lambert, in focusing on his PR efforts, might have taken his eye off the ball when it came to controlling the operations of Coalition Task Force 158, and might even have ordered the fateful boarding operation specifically as a media opportunity. If, in so doing, he was acting directly or indirectly under the orders or directions of the Admiralty, then the buck does not stop with Lambert. It goes much higher – hence the nervousness of Band.

We now turn to the main charge of the God-like duo in the The Sunday Telegraph, that Des Browne went "Awol" at the crucial time when publication of the marines’ and sailors’ accounts were being considered. Rayment and Hennessy have it that Browne "was out of touch with his advisers and most senior aides for almost 24 hours as naval chiefs drew up plans".

At best, that is an unsubstantiated charge (where is the evidence - where is the quote from either the advisors and aides, or Browne himself, admitting it?). But, in the broader scheme of things, frankly, this is laughable. In modern government, with wall-to-wall communications, is it actually conceivable that a secretary of state for one of the "hot seat" departments would actually be out of touch with key personnel for so long - or at all?

Then, we are told, the details of the Navy's "controversial plans" were emailed to dozens of computers within the MoD but remained unread overnight. It was only the next day, Friday April 6, that they were finally seen by or read to Mr Browne and up to 30 of his officials.

Therein lies an important clue – the plans were emailed to "dozens of computers…". Were they specifically sent to the secretary of state's official e-mail address, for his personal (and immediate) attention or was this a generic e-mailing of which hundreds flow through ministerial offices each day?

In fact, anyone who has been in this game knows the score here. If you want to do something and have to notify your superiors – who you think might intervene – you send them details, nominally, but you make no efforts to ensure that they actually get to see them in time. Such is the classic ploy of, say, an Army headquarters, where a message will be sent to higher command, but the despatch rider is instructed to take the long way round – and have a puncture on the way.

Any one of us who might send an e-mail conveying important detail which needs to be acted upon urgently would, in the normal course of things, telephone the recipients to warn them of its despatch, and to flag it up for attention.

Such a procedure certainly applies in the civil service and, especially in relation to ministerial communications. I know this to be true – I have used the system myself when I have had need to communicate urgently with ministers. One is given an unlisted telephone number and instructions to call when anything urgent is sent. Usually, you are asked what it is and why it is so urgent and, if it truly is urgent, it can be in front of the minister within minutes. By the same token, has anyone recently tried sending an e-mail to an MSM journalist in the expectation of an immediate response?

Here, thus, the game has been updated. You send your missive to a generic e-mail account that you know will not be constantly monitored, and tell no one you have sent it. When the brown stuff hits the fan, you can claim that, "the minister was informed".

Now, finally – albeit briefly – to the doctrine so easily enunciated by the Great Leader Writer, that "officials advise, ministers decide".

There is a slight problem here, a thing called the Rule of Law. Ministers and government officials may not make arbitrary decisions. They must work within the framework of law, as approved by Parliament. Further, they may only exercise powers specifically granted to them and they may not interfere (unless the law specifically provides for it) with decisions properly taken by officials who are acting within the powers conferred on them.

The law, in this case, is Queen's Regulations, by which the secretary of state is as much bound as are any of his military officials. This is precisely the limitations of power to which I was alluding in my previous piece. In the context, the operative rules are set out in Annex A(J) to Chapter 12 and J12.022, headed: "Payments for Broadcasting, Lecturing or Writing for Publication." I quote that Article in full:

Broadcasts by serving personnel acting as official spokesmen and speeches and lectures on official subjects will normally be undertaken as part of their official duty and, as such, covered by their Service pay; no question of extra payment to individuals will therefore arise. If, however, all or part of the preparatory work and delivery of the broadcast, speech or lecture is done during the individual's off duty time he may retain the whole or part of any fees payable, as appropriate. This provision also governs the retention of any fees payable for the writing of books or articles on official matters or involving material or experience. Details of any payments should be sent to the appropriate Public Relations or Publication Clearance authority (see Annex A to this Chapter) to consider what proportion should be credited to public funds.
Clearly, this Regulation did not foresee the media scrum over the "cash for stories" but it is on that slender rule that the Navy had to rely. A fair reading might indicate that, once the fifteen had been given permission to speak to the media, they were actually entitled to payment, provided the delivery was done in their own time. It would seem that no one had the power to prevent them from being paid – not the Navy and, especially, not the secretary of state.

One can thus see immediately how us mere mortals got it so wrong. Lacking the innate wisdom and knowledge of the Chosen Ones, we had to rely on boring little details like the Regulations. But such things do not matter when you are a Leader Writer for The Sunday Telegraph. Imbued with their Greater Wisdom, they "hope" the Great Leader on Earth, the Boy Cameron himself, will call for and procure Des Browne's removal from his post. They also hope Labour MPs will "put politics aside and do what is best for Britain".

With such hopes delivered from on high, from such an authoritative source, how could they do otherwise but comply?