Sunday 8 February 2009

Secrets and slurs

Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch, in her Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark, gave an impressive account of the controversy around the arrest of Lieutenant Colonel McNally. Any of us might hope, but struggle, to remain as professional and assuredly focused on the substantive public issue (in this case, civilian deaths in Afghanistan) if suddenly catapulted into the centre of a media maelstrom in the way that Reid set out in Friday's Guardian.

Please allow all of the necessary caveats about working from what information is currently in the public domain. There are important issues at stake and question which need answering. Conor Foley - who can draw on his own extensive experience of humanitarian fieldwork, including in Afghanistan - asks several pertinent questions in his posts at Liberal Conspiracy and Comment is Free.

There are many odd features of the case, as Foley notes. Civilian casualties are described as enormously sensitive but not subject to the official secrets act, under which McNally has been arrested. It is reported that McNally's job involved briefing civil society groups; Reid too is clear that she was simply doing her job professionally. Perhaps, then, this will turn out to be another case of an over-zealous arrest which does not go anywhere, like the martyrdom of St Damian Green.

But, whatever the substance of any subsequent charge of case which may or may not arise, the media briefing is clearly indefensible.

* Even, hypothetically, were the innuendo and rumour grounded in anything at all, it would have been enormously unprofessional for either the MoD, the Army or any other government or official source to brief the press on this basis. This would threaten any subsequent trial and, by extension, national security.

* With no reason to think that these innuendos are anything more than a simple smear, they seem to combine that cavalier recklessness with national security with a gobsmacking degree of instinctive, kneejerk sexism somewhere in our defence or military establishment. We need some democratic accountability to rule that out.

We do have - in Saturday's Guardian - a letter from Nick Gurr, Director general media and communication, Ministry of Defence, which offers a categorical denial that it was the MoD who gave Reid's name to the media. It also states that 'We are not in the business of dragging anyone's 'reputation through the mud', which sounds like (but perhaps is not) a clear denial of the MoD briefing about a 'close' relationship between Reid and McNally.

But this does not clear up the questions which need to be addressed. What did the MoD and Army brief or not brief? Who authorised it? And how did the story make the press? Index on Censorship reports that the case raises broader issues of authorised and unauthorised briefings.

Let us even allow the possibility that no such briefing came from anywhere in the MoD or the Army. But no Afghanistan-based bylines seem to be involved, and several papers got the same story. They could all have excellent (uncannily similar) stringers and sources, except why then would The Sun depend on a senior source for its Colonel 'leaked war secrets to woman' report:

"A senior source told The Sun that Lt Col Owen McNally started passing details to her when the pair became “close” in Afghanistan.

However, I don't think I agree with Conor Foley that the next step is pressure on those journalists to reveal their sources. I expect that is a dead end. Human Rights Watch and media outlets should keep up the pressure. But it must be for elected Ministers and their Parliamentary colleagues on the Labour benches, and across the parties, and perhaps particularly the Defence Select Committee - should insist on some proper answers of what briefing was undertaken, under what authorisation if any, and to insist on some proper answers about this tawdry case.

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