12 Nov 2009
November 12, 2009

Labour in the Sun

2 Comments

The Sun’s treatment of Gordon Brown over his letter to Jacqui Janes and his subsequent ‘phone call, sought to tread a fine line between attacking the PM for alleged neglect of our troops and mocking him for physical imperfection. I’m not sure they succeeded.

Moreover, many folk I’ve spoken with think that this newspaper seems to relish systematically exploiting a bereaved Mum: not a good look for any paper.  To be honest, I’m not sure that it quite does justice to Jacqui Janes, who’s clearly highly articulate and well able to look after herself.  And I also suspect that political journalists, such as Political Editor Tom Newton-Dunne, are less comfortable with the strategy than some higher up the tree.

Nevertheless, there is another fine line the Sun is walking and perilously close to stepping off.  It’s their attempts to attack the government on defence policy in Afghanistan without attacking any service personnel, who are responsible for planning for maintaining appropriate equipment levels for troops, overseeing operations in theater and making timely, albeit often very difficult operational decisions.

The simple fact is that every attack on the Labour government for equipment levels in Afghanistan is an attack on our uniformed services.  Ministers don’t just decide, in the first analysis, on equipment specs for any deployment.  They ask the services to put together force packages and then  more detailed planning is done by the same folk in uniform.  For example, it’s said we have around 20 helicopters in Afghanistan and that that’s far too few for the job. Well, when the decision was taken to deploy at our current levels, ministers would no more know the appropriate number of helicopters than they would be able to strip and assemble an SA80 – those are the jobs of uniformed professionals.   Those uniformed experts are of course presented with logistical constraints by their bosses, but if those bosses (including General Dannett) didn’t think the final force packages would work, they wouldn’t recommend them to government ministers.

It’s true that there will always have to be adjustments during conflict and that more kit, such as helis, are always welcome, and politicians are core to those  discussions and resource decisions.  But those who say that there should be twice as many helis, or  other technology and that includes comments about body armour etc, are literally attacking all those service personnel responsible for procuring kit and planning operations, not the government.

And here’s another harsh truth; sometimes people die because of command decisions taken on the ground.  Commanders are profoundly aware of this – it’s a heavy responsibility – that’s why they speak with passion when they laud the characters of their men and women who die.  Again, by knee-jerk blaming of politicians (rather than the enemy) for all our casualties, the Sun risks inviting other news agencies to look much more closely at command decisions.  At present, that thankfully doesn’t happen in the same way it does in other professions, such as social work.  Such a focus would hardly be welcomed by or helpful to our brilliant service folk.

The Sun’s game is essentially an extension of the Tories’.  But Liam Fox et al have the luxury of being able to used nuanced language rather than outright accusation – the latter is the Sun’s job.  So if the effect of ignorantly blaming every casualty on ministers is to bring greater media scrutiny of the military judgement of service personnel (and the Sharon Shoesmith-style vilification of some?), it’ll largely be on the Sun’s head.  There’s still time for them to step back and I do hope sensible professional journalists at the Sun take this opportunity with both hands.