Thursday, 27 December 2012
The mysterious case of the MOD and the £600,000 magazine bill...
As the year draws to a close, and Humphrey had begun contemplating the drafting of his ‘2012 assessment, 2013 predictions’ piece, he was dismayed to see that the year is ending as it has begun – with a nonsensical piece of journalism attacking the MOD for the size of its magazine subscriptions.
The MOD has confirmed spending approximately £600,000 per year on a variety of magazine subscriptions (which equates to roughly £2.10 per full time military and civilian in Defence). The reaction from the media has been one of outrage that at a time when we are firing soldiers left right and centre, we’re spending enough money to keep at least 6 Brigadiers in post on magazines.
The reality as ever is more complex. The MOD has tried to explain that in fact MOD Main Building is not full of civilian staff sipping lattes, air-kissing and reading GQ, Cosmo and Loaded, while working in an environment out of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. Instead the majority of the magazines subscribed to are more akin to those found in the ‘this week’s guest publication’ section of the Missing words round of Have I Got News For You.
A lot of the subscriptions relate to professional journals, for instance in the engineering or health areas. These are expensive publications to obtain, but are a necessary part of ongoing professional development. One of the challenges MOD has is that its areas of business are so broad, and its staff work in such diverse ways, that it has to secure a lot of different professional journals. While one could debate their worth, the reality is that this is not an exclusively MOD only arrangement – these publications are valued across their respective sectors. Either MOD commits to providing its staff with access to the best training materials and journals, or it holds back, and then provides more reasons for disillusioned staff to walk away as they see a lack of commitment to their ongoing professional development.
A small number of magazines were ordered to include the more popular ‘fun’ magazines like GQ or FHM. These certainly are not going into the MOD Offices, but instead form part of the welfare package for troops at places like Headley Court, or deployed at sea. Over the last few years there has been huge efforts made to increase the welfare support offered to troops deployed, and Humphrey can attest from personal experience that it genuinely makes a real difference to have a magazine to flick through on the very rare downtime that one gets on an Operational Tour. The total cost to the taxpayer is miniscule, but the difference it makes to troops moral is enormous. The irony is perhaps that watching journalists spend years complaining about the quality of UK troops welfare, they are now complaining that such provision costs money.
The final major component is things like the subscriptions to magazines like Janes Defence Weekly, which some parts of the MOD receive. While it is easy to say ‘do net research’ or ‘get someone to compile it for you’, that is perhaps a little misleading. In a busy office environment, where staff cuts and increased workloads mean people are ever busier, it is hard to find the time to sit down and collate information on all the major defence matters of the week – this is a full job. Publications like Janes allow immediate and unclassified collated reporting, in order to ensure that people have access to a useable product, and one that is of reasonably credible provenance (unlike some of the garbage that exists on the internet).
Humphrey has often made use of publications like Janes to stay abreast of developments or other reasons. To suggest that MOD could scrap Janes subscriptions to save a small amount of taxpayer funding would actually be incredibly counterproductive. You would genuinely need more staff to do the necessary collation, writing, analysis and dissemination of open source material, which would cost significantly more cash, and struggle to have the same effect.
The problem here seems to be that Newspapers increasingly see the argument about defence expenditure as Item A incurs more costs than Z soldiers (of whom the Army is making 18000 redundant). It is easy to make an argument for manpower, and more difficult to make an argument for less immediately credible items like magazine subscriptions. The problem is though that they don’t look at the expenditure and try to work out how many staff would be needed to provide the same level of support as exists via such subscriptions. It would take dozens of staff to provide a level of service to MOD equivalent to that already enjoyed by having subscriptions to magazines like Janes. The reality is that if these were cut, then not only would MOD lose vital access to information, but it would also need to spend more taxpayers money to replicate the lost capability.
The challenge though is trying to move the Defence debate away from the simple ‘number of soldiers = good, anything else = bad’, which is where most journalists appear to be parked at present. There is no easy way to do this, but it is frustrating that the Department appears to be being criticized for taking a course of action which develops its staff, supports morale and saves the taxpayer money, when this is exactly what for years the media have been demanding that MOD should be doing.