Government plans to limit journalists’ access to troops in Afghanistan during the general election campaign sparked a furious row in the House of Lords yesterday.
Opposition peers, including Tory former Defence Secretary Lord King of Bridgwater, accused the Government of appearing to impose a “blackout”.
Defence minister Baroness Taylor of Bolton insisted that guidelines were drawn up between officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office and politicians should not attempt to interfere in the decision.
But Lord King said she was “profoundly mistaken”. His comments come in light of plans to restrict the practice of “embedding” journalists in military units in the weeks before a general election.
Lord King said: “As someone who had to endure certain problems with the press embedded with our forces, I nonetheless always took the view during the first Gulf War that they must always be allowed to report.”
The Cabinet Secretary, a civil servant, was “admirable in giving his guidance” but ministers should discuss the issue with opposition parties to reach a solution, he said.
“It does otherwise give the most unfortunate impression, which I’m sure the Cabinet Secretary does not wish to achieve, of looking as though there is intended to be a blackout during the period of the election,” he added.
“I think that would be quite wrong and a quite understandable impression in the country.”
Tory defence spokesman Lord Astor of Hever said: “This war is of national importance. The British public has every right to know what is happening there including the many acts of heroism.
“Is the Government gagging the press for fear they may uncover inconvenient truths damaging to New Labour during the election campaign?”
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Lord Lee of Trafford asked: “Where is this nonsense going to end?
‘Is the intention of the Government to gag the military commanders in the field in some way during the election campaign?
“Isn’t this an insult to our forces that joined the campaign and will be laying their lives on the line for us not to have the normal continuous reporting we have got used to?”
The Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary should stop hiding behind the Cabinet Secretary and “reverse this wholly untenable and unacceptable position”, he said.
Lady Taylor told him: “What you are asking us to do is interfere in an area where ministers should not and are not making decisions.
“These guidelines would be political were they being imposed by ministers.”
The impression of a blackout was only given “by those who want to give that impression”, she said, adding that it was the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary and not ministers to issue guidance to Government departments on their activities during election periods.
“As during the 2005 general election, some restrictions on visits to theatre will apply,” she added.
“The Chief of the Defence Staff has said very clearly that no one within the military, and anyway it would be against Queen’s Regulations, should be undertaking any activity that would call into question political impartiality.”