Tuesday 28 July 2009

A question of balance

Predictably, in the "touchy-feely" media of today, dominated by "human interest" stories, almost all the newspapers play the current soldiers' compensation drama "big", with the broadcast media also running the story as their lead items.

Inevitably, therefore, we see – as in The Times - the devastating experience of young Ben Parkinson brought up again, the Lance Bombardier who suffered 39 injuries including brain damage in Helmand in 2006, after his Wimik was blown apart.

In other times, he might well have died – as did Jack Sadler in very similar circumstances – and that would be the end of it. But it is the very success of the medical support system which is generating what, by comparison with earlier wars, is a disproportionate number of severely injured, who then need support for the rest of their lives.

One cannot question the well-meaning media coverage. It is right and proper that we should care for our war wounded and, whether we agree with the war in Afghanistan or not, those soldiers who are placed in harm's way should be adequately compensated.

However, one can question the balance. Not for the first time, we have observed that, if the media had devoted but a fraction of the energies it expends on lamenting the poor treatment of the wounded in seeking to prevent them getting wounded in the first place, perhaps there would be considerably less of a problem than there is now.

In that context, the case of Ben Parkinson is something of a touchstone. Sent out in a scandalously vulnerable Wimik, it is undoubtedly the case that, had he been equipped with a better-protected vehicle, he would now be fit, healthy and uninjured.

Yet, for all the media focus on Snatch Land Rovers (and then only a fraction of that expended on the war wounded), there has never been any real coverage of the deployment of this vehicle (not a few media outlets do not even know the difference between a Wimik and a Snatch). Similarly, despite the toll of injuries sustained in the Pinzgauer Vector and the Viking, there has never been any serious, high level media scrutiny of the bizarre decisions to deploy this equipment.

And, while there has been limited coverage of the Jackal, neither has that vehicle really been exposed to the full glare of media scrutiny, despite the death toll in Afghanistan exceeding that of the Snatch, and continuing.

On sees the contrast most acutely with the likes of Jeremy Clarkeson, a very public and high-profile supporter of the "Help for Heroes" charity. Yet, on the other hand, he is the embodiment of the boy racer syndrome that is killing and maiming "Our Brave Boys", and not at all ill-disposed actively to co-operate with the Army in projecting the "gung ho" image that is doing so much damage.

What applies to the media – and its celebs who line up to be photographed with the injured (pictured – Ben Parkinson with "soccer star" John Terry) – also applies, in spades, to the political classes, and especially the Conservative Party. Under the leadership of David Cameron, it has quite deliberately set its face against rigorously pursuing "hard-edged" issues such as equipment performance and instead has concentrated on the more "compassionate" topics such as compensation and medical care.

Again, this is a question of balance. It is absolutely right that the Conservative Party should pursue these matters, but not to the exclusion of the other side of the equation – ensuring that our troops are better protected. Instead, it has been left to a 68-year-old "granny" on the back-benches – the redoubtable Ann Winterton – to make the running, while the big, brave, macho men bleat about the "Military Covenant" and care for the wounded.

If this is an unfair parody of the Conservative Party stance, so be it. One sees in the current policy line a deliberate attempt to play down the "nasty party" image and cultivate the idea of "Compassionate Conservatism", which my erstwhile co-editor so detests (as do I).

Thus, we end up in the situation where the "bleeding heart" feminised agenda of the popular media, lacking a political lead, drenches itself in the suffering of "Our Brave Boys" taking relatively little interest in preventing that suffering in the first place.

This speaks of a society where values and priorities are distorted and where maudlin sentimentality is overtaking hard-edged realism, doing more damage than enough. It wears its heart on its sleeve, proclaiming its compassion to the world, turning a blind eye to measures which could mitigate the very suffering it so deplores. Whichever way you look at it, this is not a healthy society.