ITN's David Mannion: MoD ban strikes at the heart of democracy

The current disagreement between us and the MoD is not just a regular spat between a media organisation and a Government department. It is a deeply serious issue, which strikes at the very heart of our democracy. ITN has been the recipient of a punitive and unjust punishment for a ‘crime' it did not commit. The MoD press office has behaved like an apparatchik of a one-party state. It is an issue which troubles me deeply and one, I suggest, which should trouble every journalist. So how did it come to this?

At the core of the dispute is the issue of injured servicemen and women treated alongside civilians in NHS hospitals. It was an issue that had already been raised, not by ITV News, but by the new chief of the defence staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt himself, in an interview with the Daily Mail published on 13 October.

This is what he said: "It is not acceptable for our casualties to be in mixed wards with civilians… our people need the privacy of recovering in a military environment…"

When that interview appeared, ITV News was already well into the planning of a series of reports on the treatment of wounded military personnel on their return to the UK — including the very issue of mixed wards which the General had highlighted.

The first report in our series focused on a serving soldier who was interviewed anonymously. He had been treated for severe injuries in a mixed civilian/military ward at Selly Oak Hospital. He said this: "To be honest it [being treated in a mixed ward] can make you worse, because if you wake up facing a load of civvies you can't get it off your chest especially, say, when you've been hit by a suicide bomber, anyone who comes near you who isn't a soldier… you could just think, someone's trying to kill me…"

That same report began with a shot of an RAF transport plane landing at Birmingham International Airport. We filmed, from a long distance, an injured soldier being carried off the plane with the accompanying commentary: "Flown back under cover of darkness… they are the homecomings the Government would rather you didn't see."

Before the plane landed, we had established through a reliable contact, that staff at the airport had been instructed not to divulge details of military flights. We had also instructed our cameraman to ensure that no-one could be identified from his footage — an instruction he carried out to the letter.

The next day we received what could kindly be described as an intemperate email from the MoD's head of news, James Clark. The contents of that email have been well aired. Suffice it to say that he described our report as "a hatchet job", though he made no specific complaints whatsoever. In a more sinister passage, he appeared to threaten ITV News with a ban from embedded positions. These were his words: "Why on earth would we spend time, resources and valuable places, wanted by Sky, the BBC and others, to facilitate journalism like this? Answer — we'd have to be mad, and we're not."

OK. Now press the pause button and consider where we now were. We had effectively been banned from using embeds on the basis of an intemperate email, which made no specific complaints about our coverage. Not surprisingly we were unhappy with that. It struck us as an astonishing — perhaps unprecedented — abuse of power, and we complained to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary. We are still awaiting a response to that complaint.

Incontrovertible evidence Instead we received a formal letter of complaint to us from Mr Clark's immediate boss, Simon MacDowall.

Mr MacDowall did make a number of specific complaints. We were able to answer them all. Crucially, the main complaint appeared to be that we had breached the privacy of the man we had filmed being carried off the aircraft.

We pointed out that they could view the footage themselves on our website, which provided incontrovertible evidence that this complaint was invalid. Interestingly, in the correspondence we have had with the MoD since, they have not mentioned privacy again.

Instead they have narrowed their complaints to three, relatively minor, issues including the phrase "under the cover of darkness etc". All these outstanding issues have been fully answered more than once. Yet we remain subject to this punitive and unjustified ban, and our original complaint about Mr Clark's emailed threat remains unanswered.

During most of last week, at the request of the MoD, I made strenuous efforts to resolve our differences privately, sadly to no avail.

And so it was that on Friday we received a formal letter confirming our ban, and specifically informing us that a planned trip to Helmand Province as part of our Remembrance Day coverage was being refused.

In a further disgraceful and insulting passage, the MoD said that we would not be allowed further embeds until we had demonstrated that we could be trusted.

This we regard as a further unjustified slur on our reputation, and on the reputation of our brave reporters and camera crews, who have an exemplary record of working alongside the military for more than half a century.

Of course, it need never have come to this. We all have a rant now and then. Had the MoD accepted that the original email had been written in anger and lifted the threat of a ban, I am sure we could have resolved the issues amicably and with no hard feelings.

Alternatively, the MoD could have complained officially to Ofcom, which is the standard practice in our democracy. What is unacceptable is that a civil servant, however senior, can affect a punitive ban on the legitimate operations of a major news organisation, simply because he didn't like one of our reports.

Journalism will be on a non recoverable slippery slope if we allow this to pass.

As Press Gazette went to press, ITN received a further letter from the MoD. ITN said it was "seeking clarification on a number of issues."

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