Senior correspondents critical of Government's 'ultra-cautious' media relations over Libya

Journalists have criticised the Government's media handling of the conflict in Libya, with one seasoned defence correspondent claiming that the 'ultra-cautious' approach echoed media tactics employed during the Falklands War.

Offensive: Pro-Gaddafi forces recapture the town of Ajdabiya [pic Rex Features]
Offensive: Pro-Gaddafi forces recapture the town of Ajdabiya [pic Rex Features]

Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian's security and defence editor, told PRWeek he suspected the Ministry of Defence's media relations effort had been severely restricted due to interference from Downing Street.

'The MoD has been bad, curiously old-fashioned - it reminds me of the Falklands campaign,' said Norton-Taylor, who has also reported on previous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The MoD media operation has seen major general John Lorimer holding daily press conferences with national defence correspondents.

'The MoD talks about the number of bombs it has used and so on, but nothing else. It won't talk about policy,' said Norton-Taylor.

'We get more from the US and France. Downing Street is in charge - it is controlling messages to such an extent that the MoD becomes anal and nothing is going to get through. It is ultra-cautious.'

The Daily Telegraph's defence correspondent Thomas Harding agreed that the MoD had, until recently, been 'pretty reticent' compared with operations around Afghanistan.

He suggested the MoD had been 'unable to fill the gap', while leadership of the campaign shifted from the US to NATO.

The Mirror's defence correspondent Chris Hughes added: 'Lorimer is in a tremendously difficult position. He is having to make announcements on a daily basis and yet not be specific on the operational nature of the conflict. But the MoD press office has been working hard to serve defence correspondents.'

Another national defence journalist, who declined to be named, said the problem was that the Government needed to be vague on the subject of its intentions for Gaddafi.

'Lots of people have suspicions about what is going on. They suspect the coalition forces plan to get Gaddafi out, so the MoD cannot be specific with the media because talking about that would be a problem.

'I go to all the MoD briefings and it talks about the skills of pilots and amazing equipment, because it is desperate to get away from revealing details of what is going to happen to Gaddafi.'

MoD insiders acknowledge media challenges

Ministry of Defence sources have admitted that 'protocols still need to be worked out' for dealing with media interest in the Libya conflict.

One MoD insider denied claims that Downing Street is exerting too much influence over the comms operation, telling PRWeek: 'The relationship between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and MoD in this issue is much better than before. They give us a fair amount of latitude to give our military updates.'

The source said comms efforts had been more affected because the NATO command and control structure has only just been set up: 'Once NATO takes control, it will be much more able to show the operations in its widest sense.'

The insider also addressed comparisons with comms around previous military interventions: 'The problem in comparing it with previous conflicts, such as Afghanistan, is we have been there (Afghanistan) a lot longer. The protocols still need to be worked out.'

An MoD spokesman said it had 'drawn on the full range of comms channels available'. This included conducting briefings and interviews, releasing imagery taken by the combat news teams, releasing daily operational updates and, where appropriate, embedding journalists with the armed forces.

TIME LINE

27 March Rebels take control of main oil terminals

21 March Chief of the defence staff Sir David Richards says Gaddafi is 'absolutely not' a target, but Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Foreign Secretary William Hague suggest otherwise

17 March As loyalist forces prepare to attack Benghazi, the UN Security Council agrees a resolution approving military action to halt them

1 March The opposition controls eastern Libya and many towns in the west

22 February Gaddafi orders his forces to crush the uprising

15 February Protests start in Benghazi

 

STATS

380k - The number of people who have fled Libya since the start of the unrest*

13k - The number of people who remain stranded at the borders*

40 - The number of organisations setting up a steering group on the conflict**

£35k - The cost per hour of an RAF Tornado GR4s now based in Italy***

Source: *UN security general Ban Ki-moon **The Government *** The Guardian, 22 March

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