Censored soldiers
23 Aug 07

The fiasco over the arrest by Iran in March of 15 British sailors and Royal Marines is still provoking controversy. There were two separate inquiries into the affair, one into the lax operational procedures which led to their arrest and one – by former BBC Director of News Tony Hall – into the subsequent decision to allow two of the arrested sailors to sell their stories to tabloid newspapers. Des Browne told the House of Commons in June that he accepted the findings of the Hall report, which said service personnel should not accept payment from the media, and that new rules were being formulated to ensure it did not happen again.

The Hall report said there should be a ‘blanket ban’ on servicemen and women receiving payments from the media for talking about their work although it accepted that there would be times when it was sensible to allow them to receive money from for example, publishing books that were in the public interest.

The new rules announced by Browne were published at the beginning of August in a Defence Notice and Instruction (DIN), a longstanding method of publishing new directives from the centre. They included a blanket ban on taking money: ‘Serving military and civilian personnel must not accept payment, royalty or fee for any activity which would, or could be perceived to, involve the disclosure of official information or draw on official experience.’

But they also insisted that MoD civil servants and service personnel must ask permission from the Directorate-General Media and Communication before commenting on defence matters, not just to the mainstream media or in books but also on blogs, on-line social networks like MySpace or FaceBook, and Internet forums and bulletin boards.

At this point, someone should have questioned the wisdom of the new rules. It is obvious that a military organisation must have rules about what information can or cannot be given away. Lives can be lost if the wrong information is given away to potential enemies. But if rules and regulations are not to fall into disrepute they also need to be sensible and enforceable.

There is a perception among many service personnel that what they do for the country on relatively low wages is not appreciated either by the government or the general public, and this has led to widespread discontent within all three services, which was only exacerbated by the unpopularity at home of the war in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, operations in Afghanistan. This has manifested itself in a growth of internet bulletin boards dealing specifically with service issues, the most popular being the Army Rumour Service, irreverently known as ARRSE. Under the new rules, any serving personnel posting on any of these bulletin boards – there are a number of others dealing with navy and RAF issues – would have to ask the MoD’s permission first.

This is clearly ludicrous but it stems from a feeling within the MoD that the so-called ‘new media’ has led to it losing control over what is reported about the military. The MoD has long lived in a world of its own, where the truth is what it says it is and only rarely has any relation to reality. During 2004 and 2005, with the Blair government under pressure over Iraq and with the numbers of British servicemen and women killed there steadily rising, the MoD increasingly attempted to control reporting of events in the south, largely by keeping the numbers of mainstream media embedded with troops to a minimum and restricting their access to the worst areas, like Maysan province on the border with Iran.

When British troops went into Afghanistan in early 2006, they went even further, clamping down on access to the troops. Since it was highly dangerous for the media to visit remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan without the protection of the military, this policy led to very little being published about what was going on in places like Amara in Iraq, where British troops found themselves under siege from the Mahdi Army, and Sangin in Afghanistan where they were also under siege from the Taliban. The troops responded by sending back their own reports, in the form of emails and mobile phone videos, exposing what was going on.

There might well be good reasons why servicemen should face restrictions on what they say in public. But what the MoD seems incapable of grasping is that if what it says publicly does not reflect the truth, then the serviceman or woman will naturally want to see the truth told.

Within days of the new rules coming out, a new book on the Amara siege, written by a serving soldier, was published. The author of Sniper One, Warrant Officer Dan Mills, will get paid for it. His publishers will put the royalties into a trust fund, which he will be able to draw on once he leaves the services. The MoD sought repeatedly to prevent the book appearing, but eventually bowed to the inevitable and authorised its publication just a few days before it was serialized in the Sun newspaper. Meanwhile, soldiers continue to post on ARRSE at a frequency that cannot possibly be constrained in any way by the MoD.

The simple truth is that there is very little the MoD can do to enforce its new rules. The military’s internal rules do not have the force of law. So under European Human Rights law, anyone ignoring them cannot be court-martialled unless in doing so they breach the Official Secrets Act. Simply revealing what would be clear to any observer, including a member of the Mahdi Army or the Taliban, cannot possibly be a breach of the act. The only means of enforcing the ban on receiving money is disciplinary, and the Mills case has shown how easily this can be bypassed. The MoD will always try to control what news comes out, but it is already clear that the new rules will not help it to do so at all.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.