Special forces : Guidelines ignored
Defence journalists have accused the Ministry of Defence of ignoring new guidelines allowing the release of information about special forces.
In May the Defence Advisory Notice Committee decided to relax the MoD’s long-standing policy that it “never comments” on stories involving special forces.
Under the new guidelines the MoD was supposed to give background guidance on “no comments”, state if a story is wrong, and “be helpful” in talking about stories that are true.
But Guardian security affairs editor Richard Norton-Taylor said the agreement has been “ignored” by the MoD.
An MoD spokesperson said: “It is MoD policy not normally to comment on special forces. However, we are prepared to comment on issues we believe will not impact on the operational capacity of the special forces or professional security of its members.”
Spectator defence editor Andrew Gilligan said this view could prove fatal.
He said: “Some special forces people don’t mind all the rubbish written about them; it builds up the mythology.
But others think that in making them out to be supermen the public gets a false idea of what the SAS can do. The danger is at some point some politician is going to ask them to do something they can’t do, and they will all get killed.”
Sun defence editor Tom Newton Dunn said: “The MoD is using the change in policy selectively – when it suits their purposes and no-one else’s. “They are happy to knock down other journalists’ stories that involve the SAS or the SBS that they say aren’t true, but will never confirm your own stories and are still hiding behind the ‘no comment’ line. If anything, the new policy is a step backwards.
“They ask you take their word that a story is not true but offer you no help whatsoever. In effect, they are having their cake and eating it.”
The DA-Notice committee is to discuss the issue at its next quarterly meeting in November. The committee consists of members of the media and Government and puts together advisory notices for the media on matters of national security.
Secretary Admiral Nick Wilkinson said: “The kind of things the media was hoping to see change on were the recent announcement of campaign awards for Iraq – but there was nothing in there about special forces. One or two journalists have said to me they haven’t noticed any difference in the way this is handled by the MoD.”
According to Daily Telegraph defence correspondent Michael Smith the problem lies more with the SAS itself rather than the MoD. He said: “It’s down to the director of special forces to relax things and he’s not a guy that’s going to do that. He’s just not interested in newspaper coverage in any way whatsoever.”
By Dominic Ponsford