Not Saussure

April 14, 2007

More on Des Browne and the Navy media fiasco

Filed under: Iran, Iraq, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 12:22 am

There’s a petition on the Number 10 Website,

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to name and sack the person responsible for declaring that members of the armed services can sell their stories to the media

In the further details section, its creator, Mike Critchley of Warship World magazine, writes

We the undersigned consider the statement to allow members of Her Majesty’s forces to sell their stories to the media to be a major government failure -and PR disaster for the Royal Navy – and “heads should roll” at the highest level.

It’s only been up a couple of days and already has over 3,700 signatures. St Tone has already replied to it (I don’t know if this is normal practice or not); the site tells us

The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he recognises that the Navy were trying to deal with a wholly exceptional situation. He has no intention of engaging in a witchhunt against people who acted honourably and in good faith in very difficult circumstances.

Nevertheless, it’s up there to sign, should you wish so to do. The Telegraph suggests that it’s a sign Downing Street is leaving the incompetent Mr Browne out to dry since it’s apparently unusual for it to accept petitions calling for people to be sacked (wholly exceptional circumstances, one might say).

Meanwhile, the plot thickens as it transpires that Mr Browne was a tad misleading when he said that, while he ‘accepted responsibility’ for the decision to allow the sailors and Royal Marines to sell their stories, he was merely asked ‘to note’ the MOD’s view that, unfortunately, they couldn’t stop them from so doing — a view, of course, that changed over the weekend. I thought at the time this sounded a bit odd, and it seems that’s because it was odd:

Explains the Telegraph,

On Wednesday, following a public outcry, Mr Browne said he accepted “full responsibility” for the decision. However, at the same time he attempted to distance himself from it, making clear it had been prepared by the Navy, and that he had merely “noted” what had already been agreed.The MoD and Downing Street repeatedly said the decision had been reached because of the “exceptional circumstances” involved.

Chapter 68 of the [Queen’s] Regulations [For The Navy] makes clear that service personnel should not receive payments for any media work carried out in the course of their duties. However it does provide for fees to be retained if part or all of the preparatory work or delivery of the work is carried out while off duty.

But, referring to any contact with the press on sensitive issues it adds: “Normally permission to express views on politically controversial issues will be refused. For any exception to this rule the Director of Information Strategy and News (at the Ministry of Defence) will seek the prior approval of the Secretary of State for Defence.”

It adds that “for any exception to this rule” the relevant officials in charge of press relations must “seek the prior approval of the Secretary of State for Defence.”

Not ask him to note the decision but seek his prior approval. Well, that seems clear enough. Either someone in the MOD completely misled poor gullible Browne by telling him he no choice in the matter or Mr Browne’s been telling fibs. Either way someone should be sacked, to my mind. Probably Mr Browne should go anyway, since if he really was suckered into this by his own civil servants (which I doubt, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), he’s clearly not really up to the job.

Though The Indy does raise the point, not unreasonably, that his departure would cause a few problems, too:

if the hapless Mr Browne were to resign, what would it say about political accountability? The Prime Minister and a Cabinet that rushed into the most calamitous foreign intervention in the past half-century would remain in their posts. Meanwhile, the Defence Secretary would have fallen on his sword on account of a couple of embarrassing interviews.

Elsewhere in the Telegraph
, I see that naval officers are expressing the same fears as was I a couple of days ago that the whole furore over payment for the stories was a cack-handed attempt to divert attention from more serious matters:

Officers believe a board of inquiry would reveal what led to the decision to allow 15 troops so close to the Iranian border without support.

But defence chiefs might be reluctant to hold an official inquiry because it would expose the state of the Navy which does not have enough funding for training, equipment or ships.

According to Navy regulations, a board of inquiry should automatically be ordered when boats are lost or crew taken prisoner, but the MoD and Navy chiefs have decided that only an investigation to discover “lessons learned” will go ahead.

The inquiry will examine training of personnel, the effectiveness of equipment, operating procedures and “how to stop this happening again,” Whitehall sources said.

“An investigation is going on but we don’t know whether there will be a full board of inquiry,” a Navy spokesman said. “If the Navy thinks it warrants a board of inquiry it will go ahead but at the moment it is an investigation.”

But Navy sources have said an investigation is not enough. While a board of inquiry does not apportion blame it is an official inquest in which the facts are fully established. Its findings can also be used to bring courts martial against officers or ratings.

Robert Fox, in The First Post, gets, I think, to the heart of the matter when he writes of concerns about

the effect this shambles will have on the conduct of British operations in two ragged and open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon’s decision to extend military tours in Iraq is a symptom of an exhausted US army. And it is matched by the UK military experience. Early next year, for instance, both Parachute Regiment battalions are being sent to Helmand, as one is not sufficiently up to strength.For too long, the Blair government committed British forces to wars on several fronts, and tried to fund them on peace-time budgets. Now they are showing signs of running on empty – and the Navy’s crisis is just a symptom of the crunch that’s coming.

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