New restrictions on military personnel talking to the media have been condemned by journalists as evidence of how far the Government has strayed from its commitment to freedom of information.
MoD guidelines ban military personnel from blogging, contributing to websites and sending mobile phone text messages and pictures about their work without permission.
Evening Standard defence correspondent Robert Fox said: ‘For a Government that came in on a freedom of information ticket, it’s pretty shameful.”
As part of the update, members of the armed forces cannot release video, still images or audio without consulting a senior officer – material which has previously led to investigations into the abuse of Iraqis.
Fox said that information from military personnel had proved ‘invaluable’to journalists but that any attempts to ‘gag’them would prove difficult to circumvent in the short term but ultimately be unenforceable.
‘People will find ways around it, because you will find people in the military who feel their position is not being explained properly, so they will talk, whatever the Government tries to do,’he said.
The guidelines, issued by the Directorate of Communication Planning, follow recommendations of the Hull Report, set up after two of the HMS Cornwall sailors held captive in Iran were paid for their stories. Receiving money for interviews drawing on official defence experience has now been banned.
Sunday Times defence correspondent Michael Smith said the new guidelines were prompted by MoD incompetence rather than the actions of soldiers.
He said: ‘The stupidity that surrounded the selling of stories had nothing to do with the ordinary soldier and everything to do with these very same people who are now writing rules to ensure it never happens again.
‘It’s as if somehow the soldiers posting on arrse.co.uk [an unofficial army personnel forum] are somehow responsible for the stupidity and mess the MoD got itself into.”
Smith said the MoD should not be making rules it cannot enforce. ‘Technically, if you talk to your mum about what you’re doing in Iraq, you are breaking the law,’he said.
Alex Thomson, chief correspondent for Channel 4 News, said the guidelines were a restriction on free speech, but questioned whether free speech was a ‘right’once you signed up to the armed forces. He also queried the value of YouTube in uncovering serious military malpractice.
But Geoff Meade, Sky News defence correspondent, said the guidelines would impact on news quality.
He cited the story that the MoD were sourcing poor quality ammunition from Eastern Europe – a piece stood up by amateur footage of two paras’ machine gun that repeatedly jammed.
‘That will be very difficult [to report] now, because it’s very difficult to publish anonymously,’he said.
An MoD spokeswoman said the guidelines would not affect the relationship between military personnel and journalists.
She also said the sentiment of the rules had been reflected in service regulations for many years.