Military should not fear the media

Alistair Bunkall, Defence Correspondent

On Monday I interviewed the Chiefs of the Defence Staff, General Staff and Air Staff at the centenary commemorations for the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium.

They are the Heads of the UK Armed Forces, Army and RAF respectively.

It was interesting to hear their thoughts on that awful battle, and given the day, I didn’t feel it was an appropriate moment to put them on the spot with questions about defence policy or current operations.

And yet regrettably, I fear it will be a long time before I get that chance again, if at all.

Until Monday, the Chief of the Defence Staff had done only two broadcast interviews with Sky News and the BBC, both on Remembrance Sunday last year.

This is a traditional commitment going back years and it naturally focuses on remembrance rather than current affairs.

Worse still, since he was approved as the new Head of the Armed Forces in January 2016, Sir Stuart Peach hasn’t given a single interview to a national newspaper.

The Chief of the Air Staff is only marginally better – he has done one interview, with the Sunday Times last October.

It’s a remarkable record of disengagement, more so when you consider that the RAF has been carrying out airstrikes, almost daily, during that time.

When the country is effectively at war, I believe the Head of the Armed Forces should be a visible presence on TV screens and in the newspaper pages.

Since he was approved as the new Head of the Armed Forces in January 2016, Sir Stuart Peach hasn’t given a single interview to a national newspaper.

Alistair Bunkall

It’s a politician’s job to explain why the country is involved in military action, but we look to the military leaders to explain how that action is carried out, especially in light of recent allegations that RAF strikes have caused civilian casualties in Mosul.

Last month, The Times reported the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, had postponed the annual Maritime Conference when he realised the media would be present.

Chatham House, the hosts, refused to disinvite the media. “The system does not want the press,” a source told the newspaper.

2017 was declared the ‘Year of the Royal Navy’ by the Ministry of Defence and yet we’re into August now and the First Sea Lord hasn’t given a single interview. “I admit that’s strange,” a naval source conceded.

By contrast, I have interviewed the Commander of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, Captain Jerry Kyd, at least three times this year.

He is a brilliant advocate for his crew and the Navy, and a good example of how the media can be used by military officers to their benefit.

I’m aware I risk coming across as a moaning journalist who feels he is being ignored, but I’m hoping to make a deeper point about communications and consequences of invisibility.

Captain Jerry Kyd is a brilliant advocate for his crew and the navy, and a good example of how the media can be used by military officers to their benefit.

Alistair Bunkall

Fear of the media within the military has been a feature of my years as a Defence Correspondent. It’s like no other organisation I’ve come across.

It is so different to the American system, which some might argue is too open, but the US military is much better at shrugging off bad news.

British officers often seem paralysed by a fear of negative headlines and that can override any desire they have to speak openly about the good work they do.

The Armed Forces are in better shape than five years ago, there is much to celebrate – the new aircraft carrier, the cutting of steel on the new Type 26 Frigates, a successful campaign against Islamic State.

But there are also some awkward questions to be asked by the likes of me, about budgets, personnel numbers and morale – the military chiefs are the right people to answer them.

Not doing so leaves a vacuum of information into which inevitably falls speculative and misleading stories.

As well as operations in Iraq and Syria, the military is actively engaged in 27 foreign deployments. It’s a very busy time.

RAF Typhoon
Image:
The RAF has been carrying out airstrikes on an almost daily basis

Whether it be peacekeeping operations in Somalia or training missions in Ukraine, I wonder why the Chiefs aren’t proactively championing the role the military is playing and, crucially, reshaping the image and value of the armed-forces in this post-Afghanistan era.

They are the chief executives of their organisations.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think they could be heroes to some children. Senior soldiers, sailors and airmen that kids with adventurous imaginations aspire to be like. You couldn’t ask for more noble role models.

I’m not suggesting they should be celebrities, never. They genuinely have more important things to be getting on with than constant media engagements.

But is it unreasonable to think they should be household names? Respected figures who lead respectable organisations.

The EU referendum and General Election haven’t helped. Periods of purdah have prevented a small number of planned interviews and briefings taking place.

Part of the blame must also lie with Downing Street, who have controlled the media agenda with an iron grip. For some that is a huge frustration, but sadly for the others, it’s a convenient excuse.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Lewis Goodall – ‘Taking control’ starting to sound fishy

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