The deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan are not being given prominence in the press because the MoD is restricting access to conflict zones, making truth a casualty of war, says frontline correspondent Stephen Grey
* Stephen Grey
* The Guardian, Monday 15 June 2009
New York Times photographer Tomas Munita at work in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, on a mission with US troops. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Thirteen British soldiers died last month in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their deaths were reported, for the most part, in small paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers. Why? Because journalists find it almost impossible to reach and report from the frontline of the conflict. When the Royal Marines launched a fierce hand-to-hand battle last Christmas in the muddy poppy fields of central Helmand, four soldiers died – but the only news that escaped was a press release from the Ministry of Defence.
As in so many wars, truth seems to be the first casualty of this conflict. There has been a devastating breakdown of relations between many defence correspondents and officialdom, journalists say. “Dealing with the Ministry of Defence is genuinely more stressful than coming under fire,” says the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, Thomas Harding. “We have been lied to and we have been censored.”
Despite the risk of being blacklisted and refused access to report from the frontline, journalists are speaking out about what they say is the government’s attempt to control the news. It is “lamentable”, says one Fleet Street foreign editor; the Times correspondent Anthony Loyd describes it as “outrageous”; Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times calls it “indefensible”; it is “redolent of Comical Ali”, says the Sun‘s defence editor, Tom Newton Dunn.
Almost all journalists travelling with British forces are ordered to email their copy to the military’s press officers in Helmand before publication. Many fear that negative coverage could mean trips back to the frontline are cancelled or delayed.
At the root of tensions between media and the MoD is the nature of the conflict in southern Afghanistan. The war in Helmand is so intense, so dangerous and so rural that covering it independently is almost impossible for any white western journalist. Most reporters travel as “embeds” (there are only four or five slots available a month for national newspaper journalists); the way these trips are allocated, and the conditions imposed, contribute to fraught relations.
“They manipulate the parcelling-out of embeds to suit their own ends,” says Harding. “They use it as a form of punishment to journalists who are off-message or critical of strategy or tactics.”
Earlier this year, a trip of Harding’s to Helmand was cancelled, he said, because of “helicopter shortages”. He later heard privately from a press officer that it had more to do with his campaign against the army’s continued use of the Snatch Land Rover, and his tough questions to the chief of joint operations. Another reporter had a trip blocked after writing a critical feature about conditions for army soldiers.
The Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and Cabinet Office – who all have members sitting on a committee called the Media Management Group, which regulates who gets what trips out to the battlegrounds – all “want coverage of (non-existent) reconstruction and tree-hugging”, according to Newton Dunn. “Downing Street and the Foreign Office are incredibly restrictive about what comes out of Afghanistan,” he adds.
Nick Gurr, the MoD’s director of media and communications, denies there are penalties on journalists who write anything critical. “You only have to look at who we bring out to see how determined we are to engage with everyone,” he says. And he does have something of a point – critics of army tactics including Harding, Loyd and even myself do get asked back. Al-Jazeera is offered occasional embeds.
But when a journalist manages to reach the war zone, many describe their frustration at the low priority given to getting them out to the frontline, as well as sometimes relentless control by “minders”.
Lamb was one of the first to report close-up on fighting in Helmand, when she was caught in an ambush in the summer of 2006. She was “effectively blacked” for two years, only returning in September 2008. The new slot she was given meant she saw no frontline action. “I was told quite candidly the main priority was Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun, not me.”
The Guardian’s James Meek, embedded in Helmand in 2006, says he was allowed to speak freely, and had no problems with minders. However, he was sent to a relatively quiet zone, and his requests to visit bases where soldiers were engaged in combat were refused. “I was told quite candidly that the priority was the tabloids and television because it was important for recruitment,” he says.
The government’s media strategy seems to be based mainly around “the Sun and an EastEnders actor”, says the Fleet Street foreign editor I interviewed, referring to Ross Kemp, who made two TV series in Helmand. Newton Dunn, however, says he is equally frustrated: “I can get out only once a year, and only through kicking and screaming.”
If reporters do get a story, they are still controlled by the MoD, thanks to the Green Book – a contract drawn up jointly by the ministry and media organisations’ editors designed to give maximum press freedom while preserving operational security (“Opsec”). Its application, however, angers some reporters. In practice, they say, the Green Book is sometimes used to pressure them into removing facts that are merely embarrassing or politically inconvenient.
In Helmand, journalists say embeds are required to email their copy to the ministry’s press information centre before sending it on to their own newsdesks, though Gurr insists there is no Green Book requirement that copy be sent to the centre; it could also, he says, be vetted by people in charge on the frontline. “There are no hard and fast rules here,” Gurr adds.
Loyd describes filing a piece from the town of Musa Qala, describing British reaction to the appointment of a new police commander – a man known for profiting from the drugs trade and beating a local person to death. Loyd quoted a British officer saying they did not want the commander appointed, but Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, had insisted. The press information centre told Loyd they did not approve of the quote. “They told me I had got to remove what the officer had said,” Loyd says. “Later, they admitted it was a Foreign Office press officer who had seen the copy and did not approve, for political reasons. It was outrageous.”
Newton Dunn says he was asked on one occasion to remove details of how a soldier died – not for security reasons, but so as not to upset the family. “I described how a soldier died a hero, died fighting. It wasn’t graphic. And it turned out no one in the family had actually been asked if they objected.”
Gurr insists there are many times when serious Opsec “breaches” have put people in danger – for example, the publication of photographs showing the faces of interpreters, or the publication of the date of British troops’ handover of control in Basra. “You have to realise, the strongest advocate for allocating more access is the Ministry of Defence,” he says.
But when I was filing an article from Helmand about a failed poppy-eradication programme last year, I was told that “the Foreign Office objects to your story”. This seemed like a straightforward abuse of a system designed to avoid the accidental publication of details that could put soldiers in greater danger.
Kim Sengupta, defence correspondent for the Independent, is one of the few journalists who reports little untoward about his treatment from the MoD. He says he has no experience of attempts to interfere with his writing. “If you embed, you accept the obvious situation that you are with the forces,” he says. “You are not going to get the full picture.”
At the MoD, press officers are aware of many journalists’ frustrations. One says they spend “most of our time trying to persuade the military to grant more access”. Journalists, however, say army units are eager to host them, and it is “London” keeping the media away.
The vast number of media outlets mean national newspaper journalists and television reporters are not the only ones trying to visit the war zone, says Gurr. In the year to April, 112 journalists were sent to Afghanistan (including 48 from national newspapers) and 134 to Iraq.
MoD officials and soldiers on the ground have their own complaints about reporters – mainly about those who are unfit for the rigours of frontline action. In Helmand, marines told me of a celebrated TV cameraman who was so out of shape that he needed help carrying his own camera. One journalist nearly died last year after collapsing on patrol in the mid-summer heat; the military argued he had been unfit and ill-prepared. US soldiers had to risk mines and booby-trapped bombs in driving across an uncleared area to rescue the reporter.
But beyond the gripes of both sides about access and suitability, the key point, say journalists, is that the MoD is controlling them in order to convey what senior officers refer to as the “official narrative” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the absence of sufficient independent access to Helmand, news organisations are often willing to use interviews with soldiers gathered by army press officers, or video shot by the MoD’s Combat Camera Team.
The result, says Harding, is clear. “We have constantly been told that everything is fluffy and good – and we, and the public, have been lied to.”
Gurr, however, says the military should not conduct internal debates in public during a war. “I don’t think commanders should be saying it’s all shit and it’s all getting worse … We have to sustain the morale of people on operations.”
Newton Dunn emphasises the honesty of soldiers and commanders on the ground. It is the ministries, he says, who should lighten up: for all their efforts, they will never be able to stop bad news getting out. “Once the MoD realise they can’t control the message, they will have a chance of success.”
• Stephen Grey is the author of Operation Snakebite, an investigation into the war in Helmand, Afghanistan