The general puts the press in a spin

How would Max Hastings, press cheerleader for all things military, cope with Sir Richard? No problem

Everything must now be conducted in the media limelight: marriage break-up (the McCartneys), child adoption (Madonna), mental illness (just about anybody connected with new Labour). So it should be no surprise that a general who believes politicians are sending his men needlessly into danger decides to air his arguments publicly. As Max Hastings wrote in the Guardian on 9 October - five days before the Daily Mail printed its interview with General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army - doctors have plenty to say about the National Health Service, teachers about education and the police about policing. The silence of soldiers was an outdated anomaly.

Serving officers have sometimes aired their views on equipment and manpower shortages; even more than other public sector professionals, they plead lack of resources if asked to do anything much beyond sitting in offices. But they have not openly criticised government policy. They have questioned the level of support for troops in a war zone, but not the reasons for putting or keeping them there.

The most frequently quoted precedent - General Sir Frederick Maurice in 1918 - merely proves the point. Maurice, in a letter to the Times, accused the then premier, David Lloyd George, of lying about British troop strength in France. This was an operational matter, and a dead one at that, since it concerned deployments several months earlier. In any case, Maurice had already been sacked as director of military operations, and he retired from the army soon after his letter. There is no suggestion Sir Richard will mount his bike in similar fashion after his criticisms of the Iraq occupation.

All this presented press commentators with dilemmas. For example, Hastings, in his Guardian article, wrote: "No one seriously suggests that serving officers should be permitted . . . publicly to question the usefulness of staying in Iraq." But whatever the subsequent spin, Sir Richard did exactly that. So how would Hastings, press cheerleader for all things and persons military, whose article may even have emboldened Sir Richard to speak out, cope with that one? No problem. Hastings yomped on regardless, bravely pocketing another cheque under heavy gunfire. "When the day comes that there is no place for an honest man at the head of the British army . . . our nation will have reached a tragic pass," he wrote in the Mail.

Anti-war commentators on the left faced a different dilemma. Sir Richard had echoed their views. But he is no lefty, and nor are most soldiers. If they dabble in politics, where will it end? On the Guardian website, Jonathan Freedland observed that, if a new government withdrew from Iraq, and Sir Richard publicly opposed it, the anti-war camp would be rightly outraged. In the Mirror, Kevin Maguire had his cake and promptly ate it. "Dannatt should not have spoken out in this way," Maguire ruled. But since he had, Tony Blair should bring the soldiers home and, if not, "make way for a PM who will".

Right-wing, pro-war commentators had the opposite problem. To them, generals are splendid chaps. Moreover, Sir Richard had the backing of "our boys", who must always be supported. Yet he had said things you might hear on the dreaded BBC. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore decided that Sir Richard, though "visibly honest", had failed "to understand how news works". The Telegraph's foreign editor, Con Coughlin, had a more original interpretation. It was OK to leave Iraq, he wrote, because "the Iraqis are now in a position to govern themselves". There was "massive improvement on the chaos [of] 2003", with "Iraqi security forces starting to take control".

You may have heard about the Telegraph's exciting new editor and his enthusiasm for podcasts and PDFs. Clearly, the foreign editor, also recently appointed, is an expert on the web's latest frontier, virtual reality.

Rocket launchers? No comment

I noted last week that Muslims need only sneeze, or drop veils, to make headlines. Anglo-Saxons, however, can allegedly stockpile rocket launchers, chemicals and a nuclear biological suit without any comment whatever.

I jest not. This month, a retired dentist and a former BNP council candidate appeared before a Lancashire magistrates' court and were remanded in custody. The prosecution alleged they possessed the largest haul of chemical components ever found at a British house and had "some kind of master plan".

As far as I can discover, this case, though reported in the local press, has otherwise featured only on a handful of blogs, on the excellent First Post website (run by Telegraph exiles) and as the seventh item in the Guardian diary.

The case is due to be heard at Burnley Crown Court on 23 October. I look forward to appropriately alarmist press coverage in the coming days.

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