31 December 2006

Getting away with it

Even by the standards of our idle media, it would have been news: two soldiers killed in Land Rovers on consecutive days, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. But it was not to be and what could possibly be a major story goes begging.

It starts on Thursday, when we get a report from the MoD that a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, after his vehicle is involved in an explosion. There are no pictures and few details and only later does it emerge that the "explosion" was caused by a landmine. And although the MoD must have known the vehicle type involved, very carefully it does not identify the type. Most likely, though, it is a Land Rover, and quite possibly a "Snatch".

On the Friday, however, The Times, to its credit, questions the type of vehicle, establishing that it is unarmoured. But the rest of the media dutifully copies and pastes the MoD press handout in what passes for news coverage.

The same day we read The Times, we get a report of the death (as we are later told) of Sergeant Graham Hesketh, from a roadside bomb while he is on patrol in Basra. But, in the eyes of the media, there can be no link with the Afghanistan incident. The MoD report makes it quite clear (untypically clear) that the Sergeant Hesketh is riding in a Warrior MICV.

Also, atypically, there are no agency photographs. This is very unusual. Of virtually every bombing incident involving the death of a UK soldier, there are one or more images recording the aftermath. And in this case, as the MoD helpfully informs us that Sergeant Hesketh's patrol "was travelling towards the Old State Building, a British Army Base in the centre of the City, when the device activated."

This is not in some remote part of Iraq so, if not of the actual bombed vehicle, at the very least, one would expect to see agency shots of British troops "securing the scene" - such as the one here after another recent incident. Instead, what we actually get is pictures of an apparently unrelated incident showing two burning "Snatch" Land Rovers after – as we are led to believe – another bomb incident.

These initial reports make no reference to casualties but we then get Reuters yesterday quoting a Captain Olly Pile claiming that "one British soldier was slightly injured", only to be followed by an AFP report today (see below), which states that a roadside bomb hit the patrol, "killing an unidentified soldier".

Already, we have the MoD website offering a picture of Sergeant Hesketh, sitting atop a Warrior, and it makes the direct claim that he was "commanding a Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle on a routine security patrol." But, strangely, the report also includes a tribute from Sgt Hesketh's father, Kevin, who writes: "Graham was killed in action while patrolling in Iraq by a kerbside bomb exploding under his Jeep...".

To have two bomb attacks on British vehicles on the same day is very rare - to the point of being unprecedented. Are we therefore being misled (one assumes deliberately) by the MoD about Sergeant Hesketh's death? Was there one incident, not two and was the Sergeant patrolling not in a Warrior but in a "Snatch" Land Rover, which his father describes as a "jeep"?

The question is, would the MoD lie about such a thing? Surely it would be found out? Well, after the bomb attack on the boat on the Shatt al-Arab on 12 November, killing four service personnel, it claimed on the day and then two days later that it was "an attack on a Multi-National Forces boat patrol".

But, as we observed, it never was a patrol. This was an attack on a "water taxi", a routine movement of personnel between Basra Palace and Shatt al-Arab Hotel. And, it transpired, there had been 16 previously recorded attacks, clearly indicating that the use of unprotected boats was highly risky.

Yet, despite there being plenty of questions, the media let the issue ride and the MoD got away with it - for the time being. Clearly, the media prefer to be spoon-fed, so where you get a coroner's report, and the criticism is nicely packaged and "safe", they will go to town on it - nice cheap journalism.

Once again the MoD looks like getting away with it. And it has a lot to hide. Not only are troops still being killed in vulnerable and inadequate Land Rovers, the Minister promised of the Mastiff armoured vehicles that there would be an "effective capability in place in Iraq by the end of the year."

Of course, we fully understand that the media have far more important things to write about. And today, it is this. Gerald Howarth has finally got his name in the papers.