This DS commentary has been placed in the threat section of our website because a lack of open government could of itself be a threat to national security.
National and Defence Strategies Research Group
Care of Mr Ben Sharp, Managing Director, Mercator, 180 Piccadilly London W1J 9HF. Tel 0207 411 9816
WHEN GOVERNMENT PUBLIC RELATIONS TAKE PRIORITY OVER TRANSPARENCY OF ACTION
DefenceSynergia (DS) has long held a suspicion that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) have been leaning towards control of its media output – Public Relations (PR) – as a substitute for transparency of action. Indeed, not long after the 2010 election DS held a meeting with several Members of Parliament (MPs) at which one prominent MP, who was married to a serving Royal Navy officer, wryly remarked “that as her husband had been instructed not to discuss naval matters with the media, public, or even his MP, without clearance, conversation in the evenings in front of the fire was somewhat stilted”.
As time has progressed since the 2010 General Election and the Secretary of State for Defence twice replaced, this propensity to control information has become ever more draconian. In other times and in another context one might have used the term ‘propaganda fixated’. But this is the United Kingdom in 2016 not the Soviet Union in 1985, yet the suspicion of excessive, some speak of paranoia, over control of internal state information still lingers. A conspiracy of silence perhaps?
What evidence does DS have for such a stark accusation?
Amongst those interested and knowledgeable in Defence some strong views have been aired to DS as follows:“there is denial, deceit and silence…possibly…including service staffs as well as civil servants…they all seem to have forgotten their jobs”; “It is not a conspiracy as such, but National Defence has low priority for resources because Government fails to understand that the world is a nasty and dangerous place and real capability is required if the Nation is to be properly protected”.
A combination of these factors coupled to an apparent arrogance in dismissing or disregarding external views are indicators of a Government system that is not ‘fit for purpose’. This systemic failure has led to casualties on past operations and platform and equipment deficiencies will put our service personnel in unnecessary danger in the future. Yet, as things stand, none of these opinions are being (or can be) honestly debated or their veracity tested in open forum.
Consider the latest MOD answer to a DS Freedom of Information (FOI) request simply asking when the Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA) would be published? MOD’s reply was to say that the DPA, which in previous years had been published in open source, had now been embedded into a higher level document – Defence Strategic Direction 2016 – which is a classified, Secret – UK Eyes Only, document. When DS asked a very senior and respected retired officer for his view he remarked “there cannot be a good and respectable reason for making the DPAs Secret – UK Eyes Only.”
It is not that DS believes that all military information should be unclassified or that military personnel, of whatever rank, should be free to speak about every topic. It is only that when a security classification or gagging order is used to conceal embarrassment rather than to protect national security we say the alarm bell must be rung. So, for example, when, in June 2011, the Prime Minister (PM) publicly told Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, a highly regarded and professional airman, “to do the fighting and he will do the talking”, we must ask what was the real message that the PM was conveying. What effect does this have on transparency across the wider spectrum?
Indeed, DS was witness to such a drag on transparency when we visited a nationally respected academic in Oxford some years back. It transpired that shortly before our visit the college had graciously held an MOD funded event, after which some information, without college approval, found its way into the media via a student. This led to the academic in question – a man who advised HMG, the MOD and the House of Commons Defence Committee – falling foul of the MOD hierarchy. In more recent times General Sir Alexander (Richard) Shirreff, a former deputy commander of NATO, was threatened with Courts Martial by the then Secretary of State for Defence for publicly highlighting ‘risk’ in HMG’s Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 while he was still serving.
It is to the credit of the individuals concerned that they were left largely unfazed by the experience but the effect of such interventions upon lesser stalwart souls, especially more junior personnel, is pernicious. For defence ‘Think Tanks’ like DS the combined effect of ‘gagging orders’, ‘threats to careers’ or ‘suppression of data’ by deliberate over-classification is to create an information vacuum and an unnecessary climate of distrust, even a feeling of derision, in respect of official sources.
This is no way to conduct business in a mature and otherwise respected democracy.