A colleague raking over the embers of the row over the Tehran 15 and frustrated by a patently inaccurate response from the MoD asked me”How on earth do you manage to deal with these bastards on a regular basis?”
With great difficulty, is the simple answer. No department in government has a worse reputation for its inability to deal honestly with the media, a reputation that long-preceded the arrival of Mandelson, Campbell and New Labour’s obsession with spin.
The MoD has always been the master of the non-denial denial and, despite the revelations of the Hutton inquiry, there is no sign of any improvement in the way it reacts to bad-news stories.
In a way this is understandable. The MoD is the organisation that brought you the boot that leaked like a sieve in the rain and melted when the sun came out, the rifle that took decades to develop and still wouldn’t work, and that is a complete failure at dealing properly with the relatives of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s full of civil servants trying to make people believe that they were not responsible for the latest disaster to befall the armed forces. Those working in the MoD press department – known as “the Centre” – spend half their time being bombarded with questions about bad-news stories and half trying to get the real story out of civil servants desperate to defend their own positions.
If they don’t somehow deflect the bad news story, it will be deemed to be their fault rather than that of the civil servant who actually made the mistake in the first place.
Shortly after being appointed as a defence correspondent, I had to ring the MoD about a scandal in Australia over new research showing how Australian soldiers were used “as guinea pigs” to test the effects of radiation from nuclear tests. It was essentially an old story. But there was a bit more detail which had persuaded the wire services, and my foreign desk, that there was something dramatically new in it all.
It should have been easy to bat it away as history already widely reported and regretted. But not for the MoD, whose approved response was: “We were not using the Australian soldiers as guinea pigs. We were not testing the effect of the nuclear blast on them, we were testing its effect on their uniforms.”
The story was run widely the next day with that damning quote attached to every report. As an exercise in media handling it was shambolic.
I’d better admit straightaway that the last sentence is plagiarised. It was the precise comment used by a senior Whitehall source to describe the fiasco over the selling of the stories of the Tehran 15, which far from deflecting attention away from the totally botched operation that led to their original arrest only served to keep the story going for another week and left Des Browne (pictured) looking like he might have to resign.
But no MoD civil servant will have to take responsibility for that, it seems.
Not just because Browne has insisted “the buck stops here” but also because it was apparently all the fault of the Royal Navy, a claim made repeatedly by “the Centre” and scarcely questioned by the media. The Navy drew up the plan, put it to Browne’s office when noone was looking, and went ahead with it all on its own.
James Clark, the MoD’s director of news, insists he had no involvement whatsoever, although it was his department that had been bombarded with media requests for interviews, a number making clear that they were prepared to pay for Faye Turney’s story in particular.
The obvious response to Clark’s Macavity-like lack of involvement is to ask why he wasn’t very heavily involved since, under new rules drawn up three years ago, every major news release has to be cleared by his department, and this was something of a major story.
His insistence also sits slightly oddly with an off-the-record quote from a senior MoD official that ran: “We said to Fleet, look frankly you are not going to stop this, you are not going to stop a)
people offering money to family and friends or b) these stories emerging. You go away and sort out your view of whether this is OK or not.” Not exactly “Don’t do it”, is it?
That the plan was subsequently drawn up by the Navy is not in doubt, but then, in Browne’s own words, “one of my officials [ie a civil servant] took me through that on the telephone”. Again this doesn’t exactly gel with the idea of the Navy acting entirely on its own.
Quite why “the Centre” thought there was no way of stopping the families of the Tehran 15 from selling their stories is unclear. There was a very simple way of ending the money offers. It was to put Turney up at a press conference and have her talk through her time in captivity, to all the media.
Once that was done, the money would have disappeared. But instead she wasn’t put up at the press conference at all. Odd that, isn’t it?
The inquiry into this fiasco will no doubt come up with a whole raft of lessons learned. But there is only one lesson the MoD needs to learn: treat all the media the same and treat them honestly. Sadly, it is a lesson the MoD is institutionally incapable of learning.