Michael Smith

29.07.04

I have spent the past few days travelling around some of the Royal Navy’s ships with Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, commander-in-chief of the Fleet. He is trying to reassure his people about the defence cuts – sorry, the “rebalancing” of Britain’s military forces – and the loss of a sizeable number of ships.

He is remarkably open and allows me a lot of access. I get to talk to officers and ratings, some of the more sceptical of whom speak openly about their concerns.

Sir Jonathon tries to brainwash me into accepting that a story I wrote saying that the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth is facing the axe was wrong. I point out that the reviews of armed forces bases haven’t finished and anyway I only said it was facing the axe, but it makes no difference.

The news desk is concerned about my questioning of Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon’s suggestion that the cuts are about “improving Britain’s military capabilities”. We agree to remove the offending line.

30.07.04

I am taking my son to Amsterdam for the weekend to watch Arsenal play in a pre-season tournament. We can’t get tickets for most matches so he is looking forward to it. I buy the Telegraph at Heathrow. My sceptical sailors haven’t got into a pretty big newspaper, so I already realise that there is little hope of them making it in at all.

Once we arrive at Schiphol Airport, I talk to the news desk, who say they are listing it again for tomorrow’s paper.

The navy press officer who came on the trip rings to ask what happened to it. He seems deeply unimpressed with some of the “lighter” articles in today’s edition of the Telegraph. I’m not sure I disagree with him, but the defence cuts have had their day, for now at least.

There are more coming and hopefully Dartmouth won’t be among them – or do I mean will? But for now at least, the world has moved on. The news desk calls. They are going to use the sceptical sailors as a Sunday for Monday – a nice way of saying it hasn’t got a hope of getting into the Saturday paper.

I make a last ring around of contacts to check that nothing major is happening on my patch and decide to take the rest of the weekend off. So do most of Arsenal’s big stars. A second stream fail to make an impression as they draw nil-nil with River Plate.

31.07.04

My wife and my sister-in-law are very keen to see Amsterdam’s coffee houses and the ladies of ill-repute, so for once I take a complete day off.

01.08.04 A wholeweekend off is a rare luxury for a specialist correspondent on the Telegraph. I ring around my best contacts but fortunately nothing is going on. I phone the duty news editor, who says he has updated the sceptical sailors yarn and listed it.

He then enquires if I have visited one of Amsterdam’s coffee shops yet. I make a guarded response and hope he isn’t suggesting that I would need to be high on cannabis to think the sceptical sailors have a chance of getting in.

Arsenal have a better game against Ajax with most of their stars playing, but with Thierry Henry injured they again fail to score a goal.

Smith’s sceptical sailors eventually made it into the Telegraph on 5 August

02.08.04

Arrive back from Amsterdam to find the sceptical sailors didn’t make it.

They are now officially spiked.

There is another Al-Qaida scare going on, but that is on the home editor’s patch, not mine. The only thing happening in the UK defence field is the first meeting of senior officers from the army’s Scottish regiments to decide which one of the five is to be axed. I won’t find out what happened, if anything, until tomorrow.

03.08.04

First day back in the office. The defence patch is still deathly quiet. I had scheduled two meetings, one with a contact on Iran and one with an intelligence source, but both cry off.

I put in a call on the Scottish battalions but yesterday’s meeting was apparently just a preliminary gettogether with nothing substantial decided. Any decision is some time off – at least weeks if not a couple of months, my man says.

04.08.04

I may have misjudged the sceptical sailors. They have resurfaced, in a hardened-up version. The news editor thinks it can get in tomorrow on the back of the 300th anniversary of the British presence in Gibraltar. I wish I was that confident.

I chat to a contact who is an expert on the Ministry of Defence’s review of how many helicopters the armed forces need. It will result in another of a whole series of defence cuts that have yet to be announced. We know the budget has been slashed by a quarter, but it is only a few months since the National Audit Office slammed the MoD for its failure to provide the forces with enough helicopters – they only have a third of the number they need.

By my maths that means they will go from having only a third of the required helicopters to only a quarter – so much for public accountability.

The grandly named “Future Rotorcraft Capability Working Group” is still trying to work out how to0make numbers that were already too small get smaller.

I no longer care whether the sceptical sailors get in or not, nor indeed about the future defence cuts.

Expenses cuts are taking precedence. I have just heard that the Barclay brothers are only supposed to pay for expenses claims dated from when they took over at the end of July and I have a backlog going back to March. I’m sorry.

I’m going to have to go.

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