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Friday, 13 April 2007

13 April 2007

Don’t you just love the many different ways politicians can find to avoid saying “I got it wrong”? Tony Blair: “Was it a good idea? No.” Des Browne: “I could have made a different decision.” Which, when translated, means something along the lines of “Whoever decided to tell those wretched sailors and marines, just back from a nasty couple of weeks as prisoners in Iran, that they could sell their stories to the highest bidder, is an idiot, a fool, an over-promoted stuffed shirt with too much scrambled egg on his peaked cap.”

Personally, I’m not all that interested in who made the decision (it was, apparently, the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns, with some help from the less-than-impressive officials in the MoD press office). What I find fascinating is that anyone could have thought for a moment that it was a good idea. Did no one at the MoD realise that as soon as you do a deal with one newspaper, the rest of them declare war on you?

And while we’re at it, let’s consider who thought it was a good idea to send 15 lightly-armed service personnel to conduct a stop-and-search mission close to the Iranian coast, with no one apparently bothering to check that there wasn’t someone with ill intent hovering just over the horizon. In my book, that’s an even worse idea than hurling them into the media den once they got home. Did no one in the Navy notice that the Iranian and British governments had been flinging insults at each other for weeks?

But who do you think could have told “Personnel Today”, while the sailors and marines were still being held captive: “They are trained to be resilient and to work as a team … All of them have had training in what you do when you get in these situations, and how to cope with interrogation.” Ah yes, the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns.

The trouble is, the Royal Navy, the so-called Senior Service, which for so long enabled Britannia to rule the waves, is no longer used to trouble. The army, on the other hand, knows all about media management, having learnt the hard way in northern Ireland, the Falklands and a dozen other hot spots. But the Navy? It’s been a doddle by comparison.

We expect a lot of our armed forces these days. We want them to be able to fight wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan – and we want them to be able to enforce UN security council resolutions – in the Gulf, the Balkans, Cyprus – with fewer personnel and less money than they had during the Cold War. No wonder they sometimes come unstuck.

The old military adage about the proper way to deal with reporters had the undoubted benefit of simplicity: “Tell them nothing till it’s over; then tell them who won.” It won’t work these days, of course, but I strongly suggest that the Navy – and the MoD press office -- send a few of their top bods off on a media course to learn what does work.

I’ll be in Nigeria next week, ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections, which are being heralded as the first time in the country’s history that one civilian administration will hand over to another. It’s the most populous, potentially the richest, and arguably the most corrupt, country in Africa: so a lot could hinge on what happens next weekend.

And of course I’ll be thinking of our colleague Alan Johnston while I’m away; it’s now nearly five weeks since he was kidnapped in Gaza. Please do keep him and his family in your thoughts.

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