Wednesday, 9 May 2012

“Do you hear there, Media Breakdown, Media Breakdown, Media Breakdown in forward circuit board’

The author started this blog as an informal means of trying to put across the frustrations felt at the media wilfully choosing to put across the worst possible angle on Defence and the role of the MOD. He is not naïve – it’s clear that bad news sells far better than good news, and that media organisations are in business to make money. That said, it is incredibly frustrating to see how low the media will stoop on occasions in order to get a story.


Last week an excellent news story appeared on the Royal Navy website (link can be found HERE) which talked about the work done by the crew of HMS DAUNTLESS in training naval personnel in West Africa (Exercise Saharan Express off the coast of Senegal). This is a genuinely critical role, and one where a small investment of time and money will pay enormous dividends in improving the capability of regional security forces. One of the challenges in the region is to prevent piracy taking hold, and to try to ensure that local navies have the training, equipment and capability in order to maintain the rule of law and ensure that pirates do not have the freedom of manoeuvre to turn these vast oil rich waters into a new version of the Somali coastline. The Royal Navy has helped further UK interests in these regions by conducting shore visits, meeting with and training local navies, and taking steps to help maintain the regional security forces. This is the sort of good news story that the RN should be rightfully very proud of.  It shows the important role the RN plays in trying to build local security as well as how a small investment of time and effort at a local level now, can help prevent major problems later.It’s likely that few people in the UK realise how vital West Africa is to the UK economy, and how a deterioration in the security situation could have repercussions at home as oil prices rise, and commodities become more expensive due to increasing insurance and shipping costs. Already Africa is home to vast amounts of the natural resources needed to make many of the items and luxury goods that people in the UK take for granted – a failure to adequately protect the sea lanes in Africa would mean that our way of life here could become more difficult. It is vital therefore that the RN engages with, and trains, personnel overseas and for this reason it is essential that the use of naval ships on long deployments helps protect UK interests and way of life.

The training conducted attracted a not insignificant amount of attention – after all, the presence of arguably the most capable warship on the entire continent is something which is likely to be headline news. By all accounts a locally embedded reporter (unfortunately Humphrey is unable to identify which paper) gave a long and detailed report about the sort of training and sea time that was going on, and talked in a very positive manner about the work done by HMS DAUNTLESS. Within the report was a single throwaway line about a minor switchboard failure.

It was therefore slightly surprising to see that the Daily Mail managed to turn a single throwaway line into something which made out that HMS DAUNTLESS was somehow drifting and in great peril off the coast of Africa (link is HERE). Reading the article, one is left with the impression that the mightiest vessel in the RN was in dire danger of sinking, and that the entire vessel was on the point of collapse, and that huge embarrassment was being caused to the MOD as a result of this event.

Let’s consider for a moment the reality of what went on. There was a minor overload in one switchboard, which for a few minutes caused a reduction in power. After some quick repairs normal business resumed. It may come as a shock to some people, but modern warships are incredibly complicated assets, full of advanced machinery and technology, and inevitably things will sometimes breakdown and need fixing. This surely isn’t a cause of embarrassment to the MOD – in reality, every warship in the world has had faults at some pointIn the case of HMS DAUNTLESS, we have a situation where a new ship class has been deployed into tropical waters for the first time, and this can have an effect on the vessel's operating performance. Now this issue has been identified, it is less likely to occur again as the RN identifies the class specific operating conditions and characteristics for the Type 45. Speak to anyone who has operated in the Gulf, or the Arctic Circle, and they will tell you how the characteristics of vessels change depending on the environmental conditions in which they work. For the Royal Navy this is even more challenging, as unlike many navies, the RN is expected to deploy its vessels worldwide, and they have to be able to cope in a very broad range of temperatures and conditions – indeed on her current deployment, its possible that DAUNTLESS will go from tropical African waters to the South Atlantic in deep winter – this inevitably places some challenges on the design.

The news isn’t that something temporarily went wrong, for that occurs to every ship, no matter what flag she flies. The good news is surely that while something went wrong, the RN was able to use its highly trained and skilled personnel to find the fault and fix it, while operating thousands of miles from home, and to do so without putting into port or requiring external assistance. Humphrey would argue that few navies are capable of doing that – having worked with many nations’ navies, it’s clear that for some of them, putting to sea for the day is a technical challenge, while remaining at sea overnight is beyond them. This is not meant disparagingly, as different countries have different ideas about what they want their military to achieve. However, for the RN, the story here is that no matter how far from home, the quality of the personnel and their training will ensure that wherever possible, ships will continue to operate as effectively as they can.

So, it is frustrating to see the Daily Mail continue on its curiously diverse campaign to bemoan the decline of society, while simultaneously doing all it can to do down the society it wants to protect. It is frustrating to see this sort of article as it not only does down the efforts of the sailors who man these vessels, but more importantly it fails to give a balanced account on the good work that the RN is doing day in, day out to support UK interests  and wider global security around the world.

What then is the solution to this sort of issue? Well the problem is that no media organisation is likely to focus on the wider truth that all ships breakdown, but equally the media is often keen to lambast the UK government for going to war in Iraq, purportedly on the basis of scanty evidence laid out in a dossier. Surely the media has a similar responsibility to report accurately, and not fill a sensationalist story based on little more than one throwaway comment in a report, then to take it utterly out of context, prior to belittling the efforts of British sailors far from home, who are doing an excellent job of supporting  UK national interests?


  1. Kind of a vicious circle though. The reason stories like that get written is that the media has learned over the last ten years not to trust what they are told by MOD spokesmen - not least because of the hideous mess in Iraq. So even when there is a bona fide good news story, they're suspicious and don't write it. So the armed forces don't trust the media...

    1. MoD spokesmen do what the MoD tells them- its not their job to report objectively. Theoretically that is something the media however should be holding very close to their hearts. Laugh at that last statement if you will.

      I'm very much inclined to agree with Sir Humphrey on this one; good news just wouldn't sell. The British public are obsessed with imagining the downfall of their society and bemoaning every small thing whilst their triumphs are completely ignored. Hence why all we ever see is bad news, and stories twisted, ommitted or outright fabricated to provide that.

      I agree that it is a vicious cycle- but it is one that starts with the public whining, so the media sells them more to whine about, which results in more whining...

  2. The real story the Mail should have written, though, is "why is our Navy so badly equipped for modern operations that we have to send £1 billion of modern anti-aircraft cruiser to train foreign sailors to hunt for criminals in little boats?"

  3. The media's reporting on defence issues was poor before Iraq. In fact if we go back far enough we'll see the BBC giving the credit for Taranto to the RAF! :-)
    HMS Dauntless is a destroyer, btw; don't let HM Treasury call her a 'cruiser'. ;-)

    The simple fact is that sensationalist stories sell papers, so that is what the media print. Stories on the lines of 'Navy Destroyer takes part in successful operation', or 'new warship suffers minor problem which is quickly fixed' would be seen by the media as boring and thus never see the light of day.

    Compared to the apparent problems the first T42, HMS Sheffield, apparently suffered from, the issues that have effected the T45s are minor.

    1. HMS Dauntless is a destroyer, btw; don't let HM Treasury call her a 'cruiser'

      She's 8,000 tons. Makes her a cruiser in my book. Another 2,000 tons and we're into pocket-battleship territory.

      And don't forget, of course, that this story didn't actually appear in a newspaper. It appeared in the Daily Mail. If you're looking for balanced, factual coverage there, you're going to have to look a long time.

      Remember, their attitude is "Hurrah for the Blackshirts". The blue, DPM and pinstripe shirts, not so much...

    2. The RN classes her as a destroyer, the D on her side is a dead give away :-), so that's what I'll call her. Meant of course to say don't let HMT hear you call her a cruiser.

  4. You get this with any 'big ticket' items, for example look at the rumblings of the Voyager issues with Tonka refueling.

    Its sad to see so little is reported on the sucess of our servicemen and women - for example when HMS Endurance very nearly sunk off Chilie; if it werent for the Ch5 crew (for all of that channels failings) with them, then the public wouldn't have seen the real story behind the headlines.

  5. The press will always jump on stories like this and blow them out of all proportion. Always have, always will. Remember all the "HMS Calamity" (HMS Ocean) stories in the press when she was new? Unfortunately, warships efficiently going about their business isn't deemed newsworthy.

  6. is it possable to see a picture of a type 45 next to a normal destroyer,
    so we can see the difference in size ,

    i have not seen one of both together,
    it would be nice just to the the old and the new together,

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