The ministry and the message
06 Feb 2009

rachel_reidThe curious case of Colonel Owen McNally, and the apparent attempt to smear human rights researcher Rachel Reid (right) take place within a wider crackdown on military and civilian personnel talking to the media in the run up to the next general election. It’s not only about stopping information getting out, but also making sure the right information gets out, says Chris Ames

Given that Lieutenant Colonel McNally has been arrested and faces possible prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the way that ‘senior sources’ have used the media to make allegations against him looks like straightforward contempt of court, also a criminal offence.

Writing for the Guardian today, Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, accuses the MoD of whispering into the ear of the Sun newspaper. She points out that the most insidious part of the spin coming out of the government machine is the suggestion that she had a personal relationship with McNally, ‘in a country where a woman’s reputation can mean her life’.

The MoD has yet to comment on the counter-allegations but, given today’s adverse publicity on the case, it looks like it’s been caught in a fairly ham-fisted attempt to manage the news. In this case the issue is civilian casualties in Afghanistan. A world in which civilian casualties are an official secret is a strange one, but it’s easy to see why the MoD would want to keep a lid on the figures. Reid says she has received legal advice that the type of information she received was not covered by the OSA.

The case takes place in the context of ongoing attempts from the highest level of the MoD to keep a lid on politically damaging news, particularly in the run up to the next general election. Insiders are saying that the controls on serving military personnel and civil servants speaking and writing publicly are the tightest for a generation.

The MoD says its guidance on talking to the media has not changed since the summer. But its attempts to gag officials of the PCS union over the defence training review (DTR), show it taking a pretty tough line.

The DTR is potentially New Labour’s biggest ever private finance initiative (PFI). The idea is to centralise the MoD’s specialist training at a privately-run academy in the Vale of Glamorgan. Ministers want to give a £12 billion, 30-year contract to build and run the academy to a consortium called Metrix, led by arms company Qinetiq.

The part-privatisation was already controversial before the credit crunch pushed up the cost of borrowing and inflated the price of the contract by £1 billionn. It has been strongly opposed by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, whose members would be given the choice of transferring to Metrix and moving to Wales or losing their jobs.

The PCS has claimed that the MoD has tried to ‘gag’ its representatives, who have engaged in a pretty robust media campaign against the PFI. The union points out that what it is doing is quite within the department’s own rules.

An MoD spokesperson told me that the PCS was not accusing the department of trying to gag it but was responding to a request from minister Bob Ainsworth for sensitive information to be handled accordingly. In fact, the item on the union’s website is headed: ‘MoD seeks to gag PCS representatives from speaking to the press. PCS responds.’

The MoD is of course happy to break the rules if it can get away with it. On Monday, John Hutton was forced to apologise to the House of Commons when news of a recruiting cap on foreign soldiers was leaked.
He claimed that: ‘The unauthorised leak to the media of this story went directly against our intention that this House should be the first to hear of the issue.’

But another recent MoD leak was very definitely authorised and very much undermined the government’s promise that major announcements would be made first to Parliament. In December, all the main media outlets quoted ‘a senior defence source’ giving some fairly precise details of plans to withdraw UK troops from Iraq. It’s hard to see how such a leak was not a breach of the OSA, but there was no sign of an inquiry or anyone being arrested.

The lessons from these mixed messages are fairly obvious. Leaks that work in the government’s interests are neither leaks nor criminal. Putting the wrong information into the public domain will get a swift and ruthless response. There is hypocrisy at the highest level of the MoD.

One response to “The ministry and the message”

  1. […] Index on Censorship an organisation who promote freedom of expression have picked up on the recent PCS bulletin that was issued by national officers to PCS members advising them of their right to talk to the media: The MoD says its guidance on talking to the media has not changed since the summer. But its attempts to gag officials of the PCS union over the defence training review (DTR), show it taking a pretty tough line. […]