Analysis: MoD is ready for Iraq war of words

As conflict looms in the Gulf, the situation on the ground poses detailed challenges to military PROs. Holly Williams reports on the preparations being made.

The last few weeks of intense wrangling between Downing Street, Washington and the UN over military action in Iraq has served as a stark reminder that this is a crisis which will be fought not just with force, but also with words.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush flex their military muscles and try desperately to show Saddam Hussein that there is solidarity between the international nations, media coverage has been key. The British and US government media machines are staffed up to fight the information war - a battle that has already very much begun.

The Ministry of Defence in London has for the past few months been 'augmenting' its media staff in the central MoD headquarter and across the army, navy and air forces.

Director of news media operations policy Lieutenant Colonel Angus Taverner has been instrumental in this process. His remit is to co-ordinate the military and civilian press functions within the MoD, which has been the subject of much press speculation over the last two weeks, as news emerged that Downing Street and Washington officials had revived the Coalition Information Centre (CIC), left dormant after the Afghan conflict.

Taverner says the MoD has set up a core press office of 24 in London, headed by director of news Pam Teare, with additional support from teams across the three services. Over 100 media reservists have already been called up, with secondary roles to act as media operators when needed.

Some of these will work within UK operations, while others have been deployed to the Middle East as part of a 160-strong PRO contingency.

Taverner says the operation and structure has largely been determined according to past experience. For example, a domestic 'watch-keeping' division of six staff dedicated to fact-checking and research allows the press office to focus on its primary role of media relations and quick response.

Taverner says: 'We learnt in Kosovo, when there were a lot of incorrect accusations made against NATO by the Milosevic regime, that the media won't wait, and the timeliness of our response is key.'

The MoD has been criticised in the past over its handling of the media.

Taverner says the Falklands war was a case in point: 'The one battle we lost in the Falklands was the media battle, and it produced a lot of work in its wake. By the time we got to the last Gulf war, people thought we had come a long way, but we still haven't got everything right.'

A series of blunders over the last month underlines this, as Number 10 has already been forced to make embarrassing climb-downs over denials that British troops in the Gulf had run out of essential supplies, such as toilet rolls - denials that were swiftly followed by confirmation from military personnel that the stories were, in fact, true.

Taverner says the MoD is torn between fulfilling its public duty to keep Britons informed and that of keeping issues of national security closely guarded.

Should war begin, the MoD is ready to launch a rolling 24/7 media operation based in the UK in order to cope with the constant media cycle. Equally, if not more, important will be the on-the-ground media operation, whose job it is to brief and accompany war correspondents.

Hundreds of reporters have already assembled in the region, but restrictions are tight. One journalist in Baghdad told PRWeek: 'We are all forced to work out of the information ministry and must get approval for everything we do ... when we go out, we have to be accompanied by a minder.'

The reporter adds that much of their role is to cut through the propaganda: 'Ultimately this is, before the actual war, a war of words. Both sides are trying to spin it the way they see fit - what we will have to see is if journalists have done their job in cutting through the rhetoric.'

OPINION - THE WEST LEARNT ITS LESSON

US political guru and former Madeleine Albright aide James Rubin, who earned fame briefing the media during NATO's military campaign in Kosovo four years ago, says this time around the coalition media operation will be better prepared for the onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle.

Rubin says NATO developed a number of techniques to co-ordinate the management of mass information, which have since become standard practice. The most notable, says Rubin, is the conference call involving ministers and press secretaries from five or six countries who would speak a couple of times a day in a bid to keep on message.

But alongside the successes, he says with hindsight, there were also a number of mistakes: 'Some people were too quick to put out information that was proven to be inaccurate - we learnt that the key is to take a deep breath, get all your facts straight and then explain it.'

The location of briefing centres in Kosovo was also an issue: 'We realised later that we should have had the briefing centres based with the military rather than NATO.

'The military tend to be the best briefers - they're very comfortable in explaining details in useable form and tend not to colour the facts.' Rubin concedes, however, that with literally hundreds of journalists on the ground in the Gulf, a war with Iraq will be harder to manage than ever before.

'If war goes ahead there are going to be problems and there will be casualties.

If there's a siege in Baghdad, all of the media outlets will be able to report on the suffering, which is difficult to deal with from a media stand point.'

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