Monday 18 February 2008

A diet of unremitting negativity

In the typical self-important way of the MSM, the Sunday Mirror yesterday claimed an "exclusive" story declaring: "Army need more helicopters or will lose in Helmand".

The essence of the story is that the eight Chinooks that are in the process of being back-modified from HCMk3 standard to Mk2 are not going to be ready for operational use until 2009.

So much of an "exclusive" is this story, however, that it is also carried by The Sunday Telegraph which headlines its version, "Troops will fight Taliban without vital Chinooks".

Here, Sean Rayment, the paper's defence correspondent tells us that "The Sunday Telegraph has learnt" that British troops serving in southern Afghanistan have been warned that no extra Chinook helicopters will be made available for at least 12 months. The delay, writes Rayment, has frustrated Army commanders and could undermine operations against the Taliban, who are expected to launch a full-scale spring offensive against British and Nato forces.

He goes on to say that the helicopter shortage will force more troops to travel by armoured vehicle, rendering them vulnerable to attack with bombs and mines, which have been responsible for many deaths in the past 18 months.

In order make his point, Rayment tells us that the force in Afghanistan is currently supported by eight Chinooks, which can carry up to 40 passengers each, and four Royal Navy Sea Kings, which can carry up to 10 people. He adds that four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters are also based in Helmand, but these cannot fly between 11am and 11pm during the summer. The force is also supported by Apache attack helicopters, but they do not carry passengers.

Here, he rather under-rates the Sea Kings, which can actually carry 27 troops, but what – completely dishonestly – he does not tell us is that the force this year will receive six new Merlin helicopters and six enhanced Sea Kings fitted with the high-technology Carson blades.

The simple arithmetic thus tells you that the force is to receive 12 support helicopters in the next few months, effectively doubling the number available, on top of which the British have use of the Nato-chartered helicopter for freight transport, with the option of one more.

For sure, it would be extremely helpful to have the eight Chinooks but the delay is hardly the catastrophe that both the Mirror and the Telegraph make out, given that capacity is going to be significantly strengthened for the next campaigning season.

As regards the "Carson" Sea Kings, we remarked at the time that the MoD announced the project, that it had been ignored by the MSM. "This", we wrote, "is a small but important good news story and one that shows that the news is not always bad."

To be fair to the Sunday Mirror, it did at least report an MoD statement saying that, as well as converting the Chinooks, extra Sea Kings and six new Merlin helicopters will be deployed, although it made nothing of this.

The essence of both newspapers' reports, therefore, was to paint as bleak a picture as possible, so bleak in fact that it bears no relation to the facts. Furthermore, the trend is now so wearily predictable that it pervades the totality of the media coverage of defence issues.

Another classic example of this is the offering in The Sunday Times from Mick Smith. Under the headline, “MoD fury as Brown wields axe”, it is clear that he has been listening to his mischief-making pals in the MoD – a department that has as many tribes as North America, but all at war with each other – enabling him to come up with the statement, "a senior defence official has warned that the armed forces are heading for a 'train crash' because the government is starving them of funds for vital equipment."

Such lurid phrasing attracts no less that 56 comments, mainly knee-jerk comments agreeing with the proposition – matched by a number of blogs and other commentators who have all followed the given line. But, as readers to this blog will know, the discussions over defence spending have been going on for some time and the particular problem is that much of the budget is devoted to equipment which is far from "vital".

Of course, there are major problems with defence spending but not least of those is the absence of sensible debate about the issue, reinforced by this diet of unremitting negativity. Far from being helpful, this is damaging the reputation and morale of our armed forces and prevents better understanding of the real problems which urgently need addressing.

Defence is far too important to become a plaything of the media in this way. If time permits, I will address this issue in another post later this week.