Monday 25 July 2011

The generals finally share the blame

"Richard North, the author of Ministry of Defeat and independent blogger, has passionately written that the Committee report, more than the hacking scandal, has highlighted the flaws of both Parliament and the media.

James Arbuthnot and the members of the Defence Committee should have been aware of these issues long ago but they repeatedly failed to address them until now. North has also accused Arbuthnot of maintaining the myth of 'ministerial responsibility', the equivalent of Robinson's modern day 'stab-in-the-back'.

The media for all its interest in Afghanistan also failed to understand what was happening especially in terms of strategic questions and civil-military relations. Newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail chose to vilify Gordon Brown while making Generals like Sir Richard Dannatt the honourable soldier.

The Sun as well as the Mail have both been oddly quiet on reporting the Committee's findings, no surprise. The Sun's sister paper The Times, to its credit, did publish this article last year which mirrored this week's committee findings".

It's a good piece ... well, I would say that - but it still is. Read it and then buy the book. I need the money.


Tuesday 19 July 2011

Failure writ large

It's not just the British press, police and politicians that are in crisis, writes Michael White for The Guardian. "Spare a thought for Britain's armed forces, who are risking life and limb in support of state policy, while those of us at home hyperventilate over a squalid political row".

My immediate response to this is "speak for yourself, mate". We did a lot more than spare a thought over the weekend and we – unlike the scumset and associated turd-eaters - are by no means hyperventilating over a media storm.

This, though, is a Guardian journalist with a narrative to sell, a man who, from the depths of the most profound and disturbing ignorance, tells us that, while most weekend attention was focused on the Murdochs, the police and the politicians, the Commons defence select committee issued "a powerful condemnation" of the way the mission to Helmand was handled from day one.

Mr White is, of course, far too grand to read independent blogs but, if he had, he might have seen the alternative view expressed. From that he would have learned that, far from offering "a powerful condemnation", the select committee's analysis was weak and its conclusions tepid.

The clue to the direction of the narrative, though, is White's views on the select committee report. The interesting thing is, he says, "that its ire is not directed against the late Labour government or the then-defence secretary, John Reid".

Instead, he writes, "it is focussed on the top military brass who underestimated the threat from the ever-resourceful Taliban ("you have the watches, but we have the time") and told Reid there were enough helicopters to provide air support when there were not. Ministers were not told the risk level, which later proved fatal to so many young lives".

Now here comes the rub. White describes the committee chairman, Tory ex-defence minister James Arbuthnot, as "soft-spoken but solid". But what he does not say is that he was one of the "good ol' boys", part of the Tory defence claque, who actually maintained the myth – right through the critical period – of ministerial responsibility. It was all Brown's fault, remember?

I recall of the period, from 2006, when I watched every defence debate online, and then read the transcripts. I knew most of the personalities involved, and could read the mood music. Defence then was a political football, the mantras of "over-stretch" and "underfunding" being chanted with semi-religious fervour. The Generals were lauded and praised. Dannatt was treated as a demi-god.

Anyone who had half a brain and a little inside knowledge could work it out. I had a lot of inside knowledge ... through parliamentary and other contacts. Furthermore, I was writing consistently on this theme, culminating in October 2009 when I wrote a piece headed, "The generals must share the blame", celebrating the fact that, at last, the Spectator had published a half-decent piece.

This was by Paul Robinson, professor in the Graduate School of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, whence I noted that, after years of ploughing the solitary furrow, pointing out that the military should bear some of the blame for the (then) current parlous state of our Armed Forces, and their lacklustre performance in first Iraq and now Afghanistan, only now did the magazine pop up saying the same thing.

In my own piece, I had referred to a particularly trenchant piece of my own in April 2009, where I wrote of "the real enemy in Whitehall" – the MoD.

All this was evident at the time – to the politicians and to the specialist correspondents like Michael White. Yet all of them chose to hold their fire, and focus instead on the Ministers, playing a dirty, devious and thoroughly dishonest game. And only now, are the likes of Arbuthnot – the Tory politician who no longer wishes to put Ministers in the frame - prepared to admit that the military was the author of its own downfall.

What I wrote on Sunday, therefore, is even more evident today. We have had and have now, two egregious failures. Firstly, Parliament – and the long-stop of the Defence Committee, failed to pick up what was going on. Secondly, the media likewise failed, and then failed to note that the Defence Committee was completely dysfunctional.

I despair in writing this. Even as I write, we have a three-ring media circus, centred around the proceedings of a select committee, chaired by an acknowledged crook, grandstanding for all it is worth.  The same failed system represented by the Defence Committee, reported by a failing media.

From it, nothing of any substance will come and, in truth, no one seems to care. The soap opera is everything. The hard, grown-up job of analysing what is going wrong, and coming up with serious solutions, seems beyond the capabilities of anyone involved.

We are going nowhere with this, and nothing will be solved. In due course, the circus will pack up its tents and move on to another show, and we'll be none the wiser. Except that, before this show is even over, real life outside the tent will take a hand. While these fools play, the economy and the world order is falling apart.

Damn them all to hell, for their foolishness, their stupidity and their venality. We deserve better than this.


Sunday 17 July 2011

An unrecognised fracture

Grudgingly, one has to acknowledge that there is a small residue of adult behaviour left in The Sunday Telegraph, it having devoted a tiny part of its output today to a subject far more important than the media "self" obsession. And it has the grace to admit that it is far more important.

The real scandal, it thus says, "is not hacking but Helmand", as it comments on its own report of the Defence Committee report on Operations in Afghanistan, due out tomorrow - "a precise and shocking exposé of how British troops on duty in Helmand, Afghanistan, from 2006 onwards were routinely failed by their senior officers and government ministers". As scandals go, the paper says, it is among the very worst.

It has now been published online (although not yet as a .pdf) and I would concur with the generality of the comments, both in the report and the ST's assessment of it – but with several important caveats, not least the extreme superficiality of the report and its findings.

Most importantly, though, we are talking five years downstream, looking at what were predictable and avoidable flaws in the operation, which were clearly apparent at the time, and about which we were continuously writing. The committee records, for instance, concerns about protected vehicles, but only addresses this issue in terms of the Snatch Land Rover. Thus, it has Brigadier Butler say:
... we also knew before we deployed that we had something in the order of a 45 percent on average shortfall of vehicles. We had already identified that Snatch was not an appropriate vehicle for the desert. We wanted WMIKs and Pinzgauers, logistical vehicles, DROPS, container vehicles, equipment support vehicles, the small Scimitar CVRTs.
Butler is highly regarded in some quarters, but his comments here show a profound and alarming ignorance, and especially in respect of the WIMIKS, which were death traps, and the Pinzguaers (type pictured below), which could not have been more unsuitable if they tried.

And this we were writing about with some force in June 2006 and in the following month when we accused that Army and MoD of corporate manslaughter.

But such is the bizarre superficiality of the Committee that, to guide it through the Labyrinth, it chose to interview General Mike Jackson, the man who did more than most to ensure that our troops were ill-equipped - the man who put the Snatches in Basra.

From a man who would, had there been any justice, been tried and shot for incompetence (pour encourager les autres), the Committee thus did take down these immortal words:
The tactics and equipment required in any campaign are to some extent dictated by the methods of the enemy. General Jackson (p42) explained that the Taliban had moved from direct fighting to the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which had changed the need for equipment:

[...] If you recall, in the first two summers the Taliban took us on, basically using fire and manoeuvre—small arms, basically—and each and every time, they were defeated tactically. We can discuss whether any operational-level progress had been made, but they were defeated tactically.

It took them rather longer, looking back, than one might have expected, but they obviously thought very hard, particularly after the second summer, 2007, and said, "We're not going to get anywhere taking on the British soldiers at what they do best; ergo we will find another way".

That brings us to the IED. That changes priorities on our side. Armoured vehicles suddenly go right up in terms of priority, because that is the way you protect the force. As I've already touched on, the dispersion put a greater premium on helicopters. Tactics and equipment will vary according to the operational circumstances. One has to respond. Ideally, you need to be one foot ahead, but that's not always possible.
The response to this, of course, is that it was possible to be "one foot ahead". Once again, we have to recall that, in June 2006 – over five years ago – Ann Winterton asked the defence secretary:
As our forces appear to be winning the firefights in Afghanistan, does he expect those who oppose our troops there and in other theatres to revert to the use of improvised explosive devices? If so, what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?
The answer then was a classic in studied complacency. Defence minister Adam Ingram responded:
We have been very effective in Afghanistan. We have a potent force in the Apache attack helicopters. We are up against intelligent and capable enemies, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we know that they will continue to look for ways to attack land-based vehicles or air-based platforms. We have a lot of measures in place. The hon. Lady will understand that it is not appropriate to discuss all the detail, but where we identify a threat - be it a new or technological threat - we identify a quick way to deal with it. Sometimes that takes time as we come to understand the threat before developing the technical response. Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel, whether it involves fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, land-based systems or maritime systems.
It is thus not as if our fears and concerns were not known in parliament at the time, but as Ann Winterton constantly brought them up in the House, they were just as constantly ignored. Had they been noted and addressed earlier, many lives could have been saved. Why then, we ask, is it only now that we are seeing "a precise and shocking exposé" from the Defence Committee, and one which still seems incapable of getting to grips with some of the detail?

To answer that, we only need to look at the committee chairman, James Arbuthnot, and record that, time-after-time, under his tutelage, the committee has pulled its punches.

In the context where we expect the military to make mistakes (that is what the military does, and is best at doing), and governments to cover-up, the long-stop is parliament, represented in particular by the select committee system. And on this issue – as with many others – it has failed. But Arbuthnot is one of the "good ol' boys", part of the Tory defence claque, who certainly weren't going to let Lady Ann rain on their self-congratulatory parade, much less listen to "voices off" from the far North.

It is, however, a little unfair to put all the blame on Arbuthnot, as chairman. As we recorded last year, the system is broken - and there are multiple fractures. And now, as then, as the chatterati obsesses about entirely the wrong things, we have been almost a lone voice in saying this. Today, in Arbuthnot's report, we see the result – too little, too late, letting the guilty men off the hook, after good men have died unnecessarily.

And while one newspaper sees part of the point, it is not sufficiently adult to realise where the true problem really lies. As we pointed out last year, a crucial part of the scrutiny system - and especially where parliament drops the ball - is the media. Here, the Sunday Telegraph leader does at least acknowledge that: "Our own columnist, Christopher Booker, protested in 2006 at the outrage of British troops in Southern Iraq being sent to meet their deaths in lightly-armoured Snatch Land Rovers, in conditions which also applied in Afghanistan".

But, as it was at the time, while the newspaper allowed Booker to pursue the issue in his column – with the research carried out by myself – it offered us no support. Instead, its own defence correspondent, Sean Rayment, followed a conflicting line, pushing for more Warriors, a theme he was to return to, even as Booker was pushing for the mine protected vehicle solution.

Thus, in the absence of any real exposure from The Sunday Telegraph it was the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times that gave the campaign the necessary kick-start and got it moving. And when it came to the Pinzgauer, Sean Rayment was also out to lunch, having swallowed the Army spin and given the vehicle an outrageous puff. Thus compromised, he was never to offer a word of criticism against the vehicle.

There is the the other part of your problem. It is one thing having a broken system – but when the media does not recognises that, and then exacerbates it by failing to do its own job, there can be no attempt to fix what is wrong.

And when the media think that next week's select committee hearing is "historic", we know we have a long, long way to go. When parliamentarians start asking each other why they have failed so transparently to do their own jobs, then and only then would they be in a position to start looking at the media. So far, there is no sign whatsoever of this happening.


Friday 1 July 2011

Churnalism almost wins out

From the press coverage of the Snatch Land Rover litigation, on which a judgement in the High Court was handed down yesterday, you would think that the case against the MoD had been lost. It hasn't. The campaigners trying to bring the Ministry of Defence to book, for knowingly fielding dangerously vulnerable equipment in Iraq, have won a qualified victory.

The impression that the case was lost comes from the misleading headline on the BBC report (above), but this owes its origin to a similarly misleading report from the Press Association, which completely misrepresents the situation.

The essence of the flawed report, which has been replicated hundreds of times in local and national media, is that "a High Court judge has blocked attempts by families of four soldiers killed in Iraq to seek compensation from the Government".

The soldiers concerned were Pte Phillip Hewett, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, Pte Lee Ellis, of Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, and Lance Cpl Kirk Redpath, 22, of Romford, Essex, all of whom were killed in Snatch Land Rovers, and Corporal Stephen Allbutt, 35, who was killed by "friendly fire" after his Challenger was hit by another.

Relatives, we are told, said the MoD failed to provide armoured vehicles or equipment which could have saved lives and should pay compensation. MoD lawyers, on the other hand, "said decisions about battlefield equipment are for politicians and military commanders and asked the High Court to stop compensation claims going forward". Then, says the report, "Mr Justice Owen ruled in favour of the MoD".

However, to project – by juxtaposition – that the judge accepted this particular MoD argument is simply false. As a spokeswoman for relatives' lawyers made clear, this was the MoD relying on the principle of "combat immunity", which removes any liability for exercising a "duty of care" in combat zones.

Here, the judge broke new ground. He refused to accept the principle, allowing Courtney, aged 10, daughter of Pte Lee Ellis, to proceed with a case of negligence. Similarly, the Challenger "friendly fire" case has been allowed through.

Where the Press Association had got itself confused is that there were two separate legs to the case. The first was the group of relatives, including Sue Smith, mother of Pte Hewett, who were not dependents, collectively seeking to make the MoD "... accountable for allowing their loved ones to go into combat in vehicles that were manifestly unsuitable for the job".

Because they were not dependents, they have no claim under common law and cannot seek damages for negligence under duty of care provisions. Before anyone can pursue a claim, the law requires them to prove they have suffered financial loss, which the relatives cannot or will not do.

Thus, this group of relatives have instead proceeded under Human Rights legislation (ECHR) and, since even that requires compensation to be claimed, the cases have been lodged in terms of the relatives seeking damages. However, as the entire group have constantly pointed out - articulated by Sue Smith - they are not interested in the money. This, in any case, is likely to be minimal, and soaked up by legal fees and repayment of legal aid. The relatives simply want the MoD brought to book.

Now, it is the ECHR leg of the case that has been blocked - on the grounds that the deceased soldiers were outside the jurisdiction of the UK at the time of their deaths because they were not in the UK nor on a British Army base. Therefore, it is held, the ECHR does not apply.

That the ECHR case would be rejected was actually an expected development, especially after the Jason Smith case. When I spoke to Sue Smith after the judgement, she was not at all dismayed. There are other, different cases being heard which may settle this point – or these cases themselves may end up in Strasbourg.

But on the negligence issue, ground really has been broken. And, for once, the loss-making Guardian has got it right, a distinction shared by the Belfast Telegraph. Both note that, relying on the principle of "combat immunity", the ministry had argued that this was a complete legal defence for incidents that took place in war zones.

The judge, says the papers, disagreed. In The Guardian, he is cited as saying: "There can be no doubt that the [MoD] is under a general duty to provide adequate training, suitable equipment and a safe system of work for members of the armed forces". Thus Courtney's claim, plus claims by Cpl Allbutt's widow, Debi, and Dan Twiddy and Andy Julien – two soldiers injured in the Challenger - could continue.

Before all the misleading publicity, a ministry spokesman had declared that: "The courts have upheld our arguments on Article 2 of the ECHR. We will be seeking leave to appeal against the decision about liability claims for equipment provision".

Latterly, Sky News got the news mostly right – but still with a misleading headline. The Mirror became a late entrant, correcting its earlier story - as did the Mail, while The Sun continues to get it wrong. Interestingly, the Failygraph does not carry a report at all.

Nevertheless, the manoeuvring continues. Those who lost their lives in Snatch Land Rovers – as well as the Challenger set - are one step closer to getting their day in court. Unfortunately, due to the bulk of the media and its churnalism, most people will never realise what has happened.