Sunday, 23 September 2012
"I have the honour to be, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells", or why there are not a dozen battleships mustering in the Gulf right now...
One of the more error strewn articles that Humphrey has seen in recent months emerged over at the Daily Telegraph last week (link is HERE). In short, the defence correspondent put together a short article claiming that ‘an armada of British and US naval power is massing in the Gulf’ reportedly to be able to conduct pre-emptive strikes on Iran in the event of the nuclear issue getting out of control. The article goes on to explain that over 25 different nations are massing warships in the Straits of Hormuz as Iran and Israel reportedly come to the brink of war.
It is rare for Humphrey to want to sit down and write an angry letter to a newspaper, but this article was stunningly poorly researched for an individual who has the title of ‘Defence Correspondent’ for one of the UKs most well-known newspapers.
This author’s pet hate is analytical material which includes poor, or non-existent research, or which seems to ignore very basic facts. Stepping away from the suggestion that there are three aircraft carriers, each of which is carrying more aircraft than the entire Iranian airforce, it then goes onto suggest that ‘the carriers are supported by at least 12 battleships’. This is just sloppy writing, conjuring images of Iowa class battleships supporting the carrier. Since Humphrey was a hugely precocious teenager, he has found it hard to resist screaming loudly when the word ‘battleship’ is used to describe an escort vessel.
More seriously the article suggests that the UK has dispatched four minesweepers, HMS DIAMOND and support ships to the region to participate in the exercises. This is an interesting interpretation of the situation. In fact the UK has had four minesweepers based in the Gulf for many years, operating on a permanent basis with rotational crews. This has proven to be a very useful way of not only conducting operational work, but also building strong relationships with the UKs gulf allies. The presence of these ships is not new, nor are they ‘massing’ in the region - they have been a constant capability in the area for years. Similarly, the presence of HMS DIAMOND is hardly a crisis measure, as she’s been operating in the area for some time, since relieving HMS DARING. The UK has had escorts continuously based in the Arabian Gulf since the 1980 Armilla patrol, and DIAMOND is merely the latest incumbent.
So, when one looks beyond the hyperbole, the UK is not actually massing any ships at all in the region. Instead it continues to operate the same force levels as it has done for some time in the area. The RN presence East of Suez is one of those ‘good news’ stories that rarely get reported by the media, but which do go a long way to demonstrating how capable the RN is compared to other navies. On a daily basis, there are usually at least two escorts, four MCMVs, an SSN, plus two-three support ships operating east of Suez on a range of tasks. The RN also provides a strong command presence in Bahrain, running a 1* Maritime HQ. When one looks at operational, seagoing capability, it is clear that the UK has probably got the second most capable navy in the region, putting more ships to sea on a daily basis, and sustaining them for the long haul, than any other nation apart from the USN. The UK is emphatically not ‘massing ships’ in the region – it is just continuing to operate as usual. This is often forgotten when people decide to decry the state of the RN – its very easy to suggest the RN is getting smaller, but it’s much more difficult to suggest that it is still an incredibly capable navy.
Similarly the article goes onto suggest that the long planned deployment of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) (not the Response Task Forces Group as the article suggests!) to the Med in the autumn may be designed to move east of Suez if required. This is pushing the tenuous links – after all the whole point of having an agile and very flexible task group is its ability to deploy where-ever it is needed to go. Suggesting that the presence of the RFTG in the Med is part of a wider build up to threaten Iran is akin to suggesting that the deployment of the ARGUS over the summer to the Caribbean is part of plans to protect the Falkland Islands from invasion.
So, in short this is an article where one is left with the impression the author has not bothered to make even the most basic of phone calls to try and ascertain the level of UK commitment to the region. This is worrying because it raises several concerns. Firstly, at a most basic level, if a journalist cannot be bothered to do basic research on an article like this, then what else are they not reporting correctly? It is essential that readers feel that a paper will provide them with an accurate analysis on a story, and that what they read is factually correct. In this instance, the article has been spun out of all recognition, changing the emphasis from a permanent British presence designed to reassure allies and protect UK interests, and make out that instead it is a massive surge into the region designed to threaten a foreign nation.
This raises the next concern –how does the media avoid giving the impression that what it reports always emphatically represents national policy or decisions? By this, the author means that articles like this will be read in many countries, and probably seen by a range of policy makers, military figures and intelligence analysts. In nations where the relationship between the media and Government is far less open, it is hard to conceive of the idea of a truly free press. So, is there a danger that this article, and others like it, may in a small way raise tensions? If Iran, or other nations read this and judged that it was an accurate take on UK views, and that there is to be a surge of UK activity, then how would it be interpreted, and could this influence Iranian planning?
In a nation under perceived threat for many years, where the truth as we see it is often seen as smokescreen for more nefarious activity, the UK occupies a special place in the Iranian psyche. As a student Humphrey met Iranians, who were intelligent, charming and lovely people, and utterly convinced that the UK is a puppet master in the region, pulling the strings of all the US and other nations. The coup of 1953 is seen as hard evidence for this, and it is hard to explain that the UK is not in that business any more. There is plenty of accounts in the internet making out that Iran was convinced the UK was interfering in Khuzestan province, with SAS personnel training a low level insurgency.
Given this level of paranoia, which is hard to switch off, one has to ask whether this article may cause a reaction in Iran which could be less helpful to the situation. This is the issue at heart – do journalists have a duty to publish information which is accurate, in order to prevent sloppy journalism being the basis for an intelligence report which could help change a nations policy or actions. Humphrey is not suggesting for one moment that as a result of this sole article that Iran will suddenly declare war, or engage in all out hostility against the West, but it could be seized on as evidence of another devious British plot, rather than just reporting on the routine presence of UK vessels.
There is no right answer to this issue, for the importance of freedom of speech is absolutely imperative. But how does one encourage journalists to raise their game and understand defence matters in a way which not only informs, but also sells papers and puts the authors name out there? The UK is in a particularly exposed position here, as the websites of its national newspapers seem to get millions of hits from overseas – the Daily Mail is by far the worlds most viewed newspaper website. The sort of articles that 10-15 years ago would have been little more than filler in the back page of a tabloid newspaper can now be seen instantly across the globe. In a world where even basic open source information has the potential to be of intelligence value, one has to ask whether the sensational journalism practised at times has potential to itself become more than a story, but a source of conflict and tension.
The world of print and electronic media is changing, we see increasingly across the world reactions to media articles or short videos where there are strategic consequences. The tragic events in Libya recently show that a short video made by an extremist can lead to deaths, and threaten an international crisis for the most powerful nation on earth. In a world where people are ever more closely interconnected, and where a short newspaper story or photograph can go viral around the world in the space of a morning, the need for accuracy is ever more critical.
If a story is inaccurate, then it’s no longer a case of just having to print a short correction on page 43 a few days later. Instead inaccurate stories have the potential to not only cause short term reaction in the worst case, but also build mistrust and exacerbate the tensions they are reporting on. There is no easy answer to this challenge, but it seems increasingly clear that as we continue to enter an ever more globally interconnected planet, that the media have not only to report the story, but also to ensure that the story does not become part of a larger story in itself.