Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A calling to account

Delays in the Parliamentary process on what might be called "routine" business inevitably mean that there is a time lag between an event and the response to it, calling to account the government's performance.

A good example of this is a Westminster Hall debate called by Ann Winterton yesterday, to address the lamentable performance of the MoD’s PR machine – with specific reference to the operation in Musa Qala in early December.

It was then that British and US forces, in concert with the Afghan National Army, launched the biggest operation in Helmund since the arrival of British forces. And it was also then, as readers will recall, that the MoD publicity operation shut down, retreating behind a wall of "operational security", even as the international media were beginning to report events.

Thus did Ann Winterton start her speech noting that we have heard much comment in the media over the past few months about how the military and its tremendous achievements in both Iraq and Afghanistan need to be appreciated by people in the United Kingdom.

She, on the other hand, questioned whether the military itself does enough to encourage that situation. The purpose of the debate was to highlight the fact that it could do more and do it better.

The point, of course, is that while – in the past – the military could perhaps rely on fairly constant and reasonably accurate coverage (but by no means always), the world has changed considerably. The shots are now called by a media which – as we know to our cost over a wide range of fields - do not necessarily give a fair and accurate summary of what is happening in the field. Furthermore, competing priorities and competition from other news stories can drive accurate reporting of operations off the front pages and television.

It was against this broader background that Ann Winterton chose to use the Musa Qala operation as the basis for her debate, noting that the only competition for news during that period was the missing person presumed dead for five years following a canoeing incident on the north-east coast—someone who was subsequently discovered to be very much alive.

A great opportunity, she asserted, had been lost by the military to capture the imagination of the public. It had been lost under the camouflage of NATO, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), the Afghan army and operational security. Although media information would have had to have been shared with those organisations, none of them had any interest in, or responsibility for, the reaction of the British people to the battle of Musa Qala.

Therein did lie much of the problem as the coalition forces had decided (quite rightly) to promote the role of the Afghan national army and the Afghan Government and, while one can accept that as a worthy objective, Ann's assertion was that the MoD should have had its own domestic priority – that of keeping the British public informed, not least because it is important for the recruitment and retention of personnel in our armed services.

Furthermore, the families of serving personnel in Afghanistan had an obvious interest in developments, and we had the bizarre situation where they had to resort to foreign media and even to the Taliban for progress reports during the operation. The only information on the MOD website was an 82-word news article published on Friday 7 December 2007, which was replaced by another short article of 139 words the following day.

Throughout the operation, it was left to newspapers to provide adequate coverage, something they did patchily without ever really projecting the importance of events unfolding, which could well prove to be the turning point in the whole Afghanistan war.

The issue is that there was a long build-up to the operation and anyone watching the progression of British forces up the Sangin valley could see the evidence that it was simply a matter of time before the assault on Musa Qala was going to happen. The signals had been apparent since the month before. Certainly, the Taleban were expecting an assault and had prepared their response well in advance.

Thus, there were no good operational reasons why, after the operation had commenced, the MoD should not have offered a running commentary, especially as it was quickly evident that the Taleban were not going to stand and fight. As Ann told the House, when the important flow of news is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of operational security, the Army pays a high price in the loss of good public relations.

Sensibly handled news, she added - which would also have been picked up by the Taliban - could have been used to the advantage of the allies as it has so often been before. Just as the military operation for Musa Qaleh had been meticulously planned and executed, so should have been the public relations exercise. In her view:

The news of the steady push up the Sangin valley by British and Afghan forces could have been fed to the media, together with appropriate photographs, rather than the few outdated ones that were used. The purpose of the operation, the importance of the strategy, the breaking of the Taliban’s hold on the drugs trade and the sheer intensity of the battle, which took place over the weekend of 7, 8 and 9 December 2007 could have been explained.

The flow of good material, backed by photographs and video footage, could have dominated the British media for several days, sending out a very clear message about the achievements of the military. Instead, we had a complete public relations disaster insofar as a valuable opportunity was lost, very little material was available, and virtually an information vacuum followed.

We now know that British forces are still harrying the Taliban, holding and rebuilding positions that have been taken in order to make it more difficult for the insurgents to re-group in the spring. This is back to the humdrum routine when, normally, the only real news coming out of theatre is the occasional casualty. The complete lack of sympathetic coverage, when the opportunity arose, is not the way for the military to gain the enthusiastic backing of the British people.
Sharing very much the sentiment of this blog, Ann Winterton sought to pre-empt the minister by stating that if "…the reason for the void is operational security, I shall feel like screaming, because I do not accept it." The situation, she said, was caused by a total failure of the military and the MoD to understand the power and importance of good public relations in informing the public about what was happening.

It is as important to take the British people along with us, as it is to win the battle on the ground, because if that is not achieved, the calls for withdrawing from military action could escalate, with the result that recruitment and retention become ever more difficult.

Ann then offers some advice as to how the publicity effort should be improved, not least a thorough overhaul of the chain of command, to decide how best material can be released. There are, she suspects, - as in all large organisations – "blockages". The Ministry should be at the forefront of the release of news material; it should not lag days behind, or be dictated to and led by other media sources.

The crucial thing though is that it is no good the military moaning about a lack of public support when it does not go out of its way to inform the public. It has material in abundance, and not just about war-fighting, which it could provide to the news media. It cannot blame anyone but itself for the failure to get the message over to the nation as a whole. To be effective, one has to update it continually, be ahead of the game and understand and promote the flow of stories.

Ann then concluded that the purpose of insurgency, which the UK is trying to counter, with great difficulty, particularly in Afghanistan, is not only to take control of an area but to undermine those who oppose it and to destroy support for foreign troops in their home territory. The calls for withdrawal then intensify, but the best way to counter them is to have established an excellent narrative and communication with the British people, who support the armed services for their professional and unselfish service on behalf of our country and its people.

Replying was the minister for the armed forces, Bob Ainsworth, and it was never going to be the case that he was going to give a full or candid response. This never happens and it would be naïve to expect it.

However, we did get a statement that he agreed with some of what she said, but not all. We got ritual protestations about operational security and very little evidence that there was any understanding about how this had been and is being misused.

Attending the debate though was Patrick Mercer – all credit to him for so doing. But he charged that Brigadier Andy Mackay (pictured below left) had been let down badly at MOD level, and wanted to know why there was no single service chief in charge of public relations, as there used to be.

From where Mercer got his information we do not know, but our impression is that the blockage occurred in theatre and the London end of the MoD operation was as much in the dark as we were, finding out about the situation from the same press conferences in Kabul, from which the national media drew information.

Anyhow, we need not detain ourselves much longer with Ainsworth, although it is worth noting that Mercer did intervene again asking for an assurance that all the lessons that were learned from the aggressive handling of public relations in Northern Ireland are now thoroughly understood in relation to current operations.

He has a point there. By common accord, the Army did get its act together in Ulster, and had a slick operation. But, as seem so often, the skills so hard won seem to have atrophied and the new intake are having to learn the lessons all over again.

Certainly, Ainsworth seem to agree there, stating that he could not affirm that every lesson that was learned over 30 years of complex, dangerous operations in Northern Ireland has been learned and remembered by the individuals in the MOD. "We have to stay on top of that," said Ainsworth.

The Government, he concluded, know that public support and understanding of the activities of the armed forces are important to their long-term success. To that end, we have a duty to share as much information as we can about their work.

It was as much as we could expect, and the point has been made. We will have to watch for evidence of improvement and, while we have no doubt that there are people in the MoD and elsewhere determined to make things better, we are also conscious of the fact that there is a huge mountain to climb. To this day, we have not seen on the MoD website a full account of the Musa Qala operation.