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.


  1. "The carriers are supported by at least 12 battleships, including ballistic missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers and assault ships carrying thousand of US Marines and special forces."

    Ok, it should be warships, but its hardly the worlds worst ever mistake....

    1. Care to elaborate on what a "Ballistic Missile Cruiser" is?

      Ballistic missiles tend to have a specific connotation for the less well-informed. I can only assume the journo means Aegis "anti-ballistic-missile" cruiser, but it's a poor showing from someone walking in JOhn Keegans footsteps.

    2. That's the same shoddy writing that explains why large amounts of people equate a 'nuclear submarine'(SSN) to a submarine that carries nuclear missiles(SSBN) which clouds the debate on nuclear weapons.

    3. NaB / A
      Bugger me, I read that Ballistica Missile Submarines, Cruisers..... half a dozen times

  2. Well said Sir Humphrey. I was absolutely appalled by this trashy article, and the Daily Telegraph should be ashamed. It did, though, form part of a recent pattern of intense, hysterical, and frequently incorrect, reporting on the Iran problem. Somebody somewhere is indeed pulling strings...

  3. Good points, Sir H. The Telegraph really is a bloody awful newspaper these days and that article was a good example of how low its standards have sunk.

  4. This is just the latest in a lamentable line of shoddy defence related articles by the DT - their coverage of CVF was downright dishonest or incompetent. Perhaps the growth of uncorrected drivel on the internet has left modern journalists disallusioned - why bother being conscientious when gossip and hearsay masquerading as fact proliferates on social media sites with no one to referee it.

    While on the subject of modern journalism (I trained as a journalist many years ago) why do newspapers now think it is acceptable to comment on rather than simply report the news - this is what "the Editor's page" used to be for?

  5. I'm just trying to decide which bit of that Telegraph article is worse; The talk of "Ballistic Missile Cruisers" and other generally bad journalism, or the fact that the following was the highest rated comment I could find, with over 1300 recommendations, more than ten times the number of recommendations on any other comment. And I quote;

    "The reality is that islam wants to take over the world and take all people back to year zero. To prevent the scenes of well educated iphone using men dressed as primaval figures out of a Monty Python film screaming for the destruction of every thing their prophet didn't dream up i.e. good education, freedom of speech and iphones, they should all be deported or interred. End of"

    1. In my view the below-the-line commentators at the Telegraph website are the worst of any major UK newspaper, which is saying something. Part of the problem is they don't seem to moderate them at all. It's either hilarious or deeply depressing, depending on your mood; the one you quote is actually quite mild, compared to the openly neofascist diatribes one sometimes comes across, labelling anyone who disagrees a 'race traitor' and that kind of thing.

  6. Follow the gourd.........

  7. Not a Boffin24 September 2012 09:11


    Thanks to our deteriorating education system most folk would assume:

    [Def.:] A ship that is bl00dy-angry, manic-like. One that would glass you if you ever looked at it!

    I am sure that's as close as most people would get. It reminds me of the last days of the PLO in Beirut: Firing 7.62 into the air without the wherewithal to understand the effect of gravity....

  8. Sir Humphrey

    I can only agree your disappointment with people who set themselves up as serious journalists not using the correct words, thus altering the readers perception of the story.

    This level of professionalism, where stories can be written with the chance of affecting accidental change to real situations are probably best left to those journalists more expert on matters such as which celebrity may or may not have had their tits out within the range of a press camera, rather than those claiming serious subject knowledge.

  9. I suggest we deploy a mixed force of war galleons, air-defence triremes and anti-submarine sloops.

    It's a deeply useless bit of journalism, although in fairness having worked in a fair few newsrooms the 'battleships' thing strikes me as the kind of thing that could just as easily have come from an idiot subeditor trying to sex the copy up at the last minute as from an ignorant defence correspondent. This sort of drivel used to be what you got when you asked one of the arts and theatre journalists to cover because the defence specialist was off sick or similar; the fact it's now being produced by the defence correspondent himself is fairly dispiriting.

  10. This isn't the first time the Telly has been so far off the radar that one could be forgiven for believing that the author was a recent product of a 2:2 in Meeja studies.
    Sir Humph should e-mail his piece to the Editor and volunteer his services a s a roving journo in the Defense world. Given the surgical wipe of the floor by Sir H, it would be an error of judgement to risk the Graidian getting hold of a rebuttal...............
    UNLESS.........there's an ulterior motive.
    I love a conspiracy.

  11. I used to regularly post pieces that pulled articles in the Telegraph, Guardian, Mail, Mirror etc to pieces but in the end I gave up.

    No matter how much you try and offer a correction and their articles are usually accompanied by comments saying broadly the same thing, they just don't seem to take the time to educate themselves.

    The standard of mainstream media defence journalism in this country is woeful.

    Thats why I come to places like here because I know I can get an informed slant on an issue.

    There are a few decent journalists though, I really like Alan Mallinson in the Mail, definately reccomend reading his stuff and the economist is often spot on as well

    Great piece though Sir H, forensic in its dissection of the nonsense in the original article.

    Love it

  12. Great stuff as ever Sir H.

    And yes, MSM coverage of other subjects is generally about this bad, although there are some journos who still a)care and b)have some brains. Not many left though - and in technical fields most of them seem to have migrated to the specialist journals. There's been dead-tree articles on subjects I am intimately familiar with where I've had to go to the specialists just to find out what the basic story was, they were the equivalent of "A country has amassed a fleet of ships somewhere".

    Perhaps a more pertinent example of how garbled messages can affect things is the USN's infamous "pivot to Asia" - as Galrahn keeps pointing out there is no such thing (it's something like a net 3 ships from the Atlantic over the next 10 years), but it's now accepted wisdom that the USN is out to get China. The difference is that there seems to be official encouragement for maintaining the lie.

    And it's interesting how no-one seems to have noticed COUGAR 12....