“Project and protect”: the military, ministers and the media

The dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal and the recent briefing by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, to the Sunday Times on the premature retirement of the chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, are just the latest examples of damage done to the relationship
between the military and their political masters. Both episodes were unfortunate and avoidable.

From the beginning of the Second World War until the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, the British navy, army and air force each had a serving one-star director of public relations, responsible for protecting and projecting the image of his service. In doing so, he acted not only as the middleman between the military and the media, but between the chief of staff of his service and the media.

In order that the public might be better informed, he briefed defence correspondents and arranged special facilities for them so that they could, in turn, brief their readers, listeners and viewers. But, at all times, he was conscious of ensuring that the ­all-important relationship between his chief of staff and ministers was not damaged in any way by anything that appeared in the media.

Thus interviews with, or print articles by, serving chiefs of staff were controlled and rare events.

Geoff Hoon, Fox's predecessor, did away with these posts. But when the current Secretary of State uses the media, rather than the usual channels, to announce the departure of his chief of defence staff, the time has come to review the 2003 decision.

General McChrystal's case also draws attention to the perils of the military becoming involved in open debate on matters of current interest. While it is inappropriate for serving officers to criticise government policy openly, they should not be prevented from briefing the media about operations in which they are currently involved, provided no lives are put at risk by anything published.

Meanwhile, senior retired officers can play a useful role by contributing a military viewpoint in debates on military matters. Anyone reading debates on defence in the House of Lords is bound to be struck by the value added by former chiefs of staff.

In the recent election campaign, a number of us were most unhappy that the issue of the replacement of Trident was excluded from proposed strategic defence reviews by all the major political parties, a subject that we have raised many times before. While we may be regarded as yesterday's men in operational terms, we do not stop thinking in retirement.

Lord Ramsbotham, a crossbench peer, is a retired British army general and was the army's director of public relations from 1982 to 1984.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals