War reporters hit out at MoD ban

War correspondents have reacted with outrage to the MoD's move to ban ITN reporters from embed missions with troops.

On Monday, the MoD banned all ITN reporters from embedded assignments in Afghanistan or Iraq following two reports on ITV News which were critical of the way wounded soldiers have been treated. The MoD has complained about alleged inaccuracies and also expressed concern about ITV using images which could identify injured soldiers.

One journalist, who has had extensive dealings with the MoD, said: "It's an astonishing way to behave. The situation is frankly pathetic. Such obvious attempts to censor the press aren't actually going to help the MoD at all."

He added: "The MoD naturally tries to control access, but in the past it has done it sensibly and has done it fairly. In the past year, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, you see highly political control over embeds and we've seen reporters prevented from going there deliberately by the MoD, and in the end reporters turn up in Kandahar off their own back."

Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb said: "I think the MoD's policy in terms of allowing journalists access to military operations in Afghanistan has been disastrous in media terms because by making it difficult for people to have access they've actually shot themselves in the foot."

Lamb said: "Generally when journalists are embedded with the military, reports are quite positive, it's much more ‘our brave boys taking on the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents'.

"When you stop them having access to that it makes the media suspicious as to why we're not being given access, ‘what is it they don't want us to see'. The soldiers in Afghanistan were frustrated that they weren't getting reported on because they were doing a very good job."

Lamb was embedded with British troops in Helmand last July when they became involved in a firefight with insurgents in which the British position was nearly over run.

She said: "After that they [the MoD] tried to crack down. There was this definite policy of not allowing access to military operations. People that got embedded were taken to Lesgaga in central Helmand where there is basically nothing happening and were not getting out generally to see operations that were happening."

The Independent's defence and diplomatic correspondent Kim Sengupta told Press Gazette he was surprised the ban applied to ITV News because ITV was one of the first reporting teams to get access to troops in Sangin in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

Sengupta said: "The MoD has made a genuine effort to try and build bridges with the defence correspondents, but the problem it faces is that it still desires from some parts of the Government, namely Downing Street, to try and control the news flow and in a situation like a conflict it simply isn't practical and even Downing Street has begun to realise that."

The MoD's head of news, James Clark, said: "Our concerns are not about the tones of ITN's reporting, they have every right to be as critical as they wish. Where we do have concerns are about both the accuracy of their reporting and their choice to use images of injured soldiers coming off aeroplanes without the permission of those soldiers and you can imagine were those soldiers' families to have seen those images what the effect would be."

Clark said ITN would not be allowed to embed journalists with troops in Afghanistan or Iraq until the network could provide the MoD with reassurances "regarding accuracies and behaviour". ITV News editor-in-chief David Mannion said: "We've publicly acknowledged that we have received a complaint form the MoD, but the complaint is non-specific. I have written to them asking for an explanation for their threat to withdraw facilitates from us and I'm awaiting a response."

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