21 January 2007

An heroic failure

We did the story on Wednesday with a follow-up the following day, in which I was highly critical of the unbelievably amateur graphic published by The Daily Telegraph to illustrate the attempted rescue of Lance Corporal Ford.

Although the attempt was last Monday, it has taken this long for photographs of one of the Apache helicopters actually involved in the rescue attempt to reach the media. These have been picked up by – amongst others - the News of the World, the Mail on Sunday, the Observer and The Sunday Telegraph (print edition only).

The photographs themselves completely support our contention that the riders on the Apaches were strapped to the sides and not, as the Telegraph illustrated in its cack-handed manner, lying prone across the wings.

Some of our readers - well, one in particular - questioned whether the detail mattered, countering our view that there seems little value in using up precious space in a national newspaper with a graphic which offers a false impression of events. Arguably - and we do thus argue - if accuracy is no longer an issue, then we might as well all give up and go home, leaving the newspapers to print whatever they deem fit - right or wrong - without challenge.

But there is more to it than this. Following the incident on the Monday, the Army Air Corps was ordered to put on a demonstration of how the Apache transport was arranged, which it did at its Middle Wallop base on the Wednesday morning. Thus, apart from checking the details on the internet (which we did), the Telegraph had an opportunity to check with the Army as to the details, both that morning and later, when Channel 4 News broadcast footage of the demonstration (video grab illustrated above). That the paper did not, and persevered with publishing an inaccurate graphic, suggests an element of carelessness or even incompetence that does not fit well with a major national daily newspaper.

Even then, we have always regarded this issue as peripheral. We were concerned that, in talking up a procedure that is quite normal in the military - hanging off helicopters - the paper was missing the point. In our Thursday posting, we argued that, in its story accompanying the graphic, it could have been better employed raising the issue that we had brought up, and which had been raised by a Telegraph letter-writer - why were there no proper troop-carrying assault helicopters to convey troops in what was a pre-planned attack?

But it was Channel 4 News, in its Wednesday evening report, that raised an even more important issue. The attack site, suspected of being an important Taliban regional centre, had been under observation for two months. Yet the assault, dubbed "Operation Glacier" - where the attackers' numbers had vastly overwhelmed the defenders - had faltered in the face of ferocious fighting.

This led Channel 4 News corespondent Alex Thompson to observe:

There is, however, no getting away from the central fact of this operation, which was that it was a failure, albeit a heroic failure in some aspects… the Taliban were not flushed out of their fort, and four Marines were injured and one, of course, was killed.
His report concluded, "There will be serious questions as to why months of surveillance and planning ended up in retreat, injury and death."

It takes no imagination at all to surmise the MoD's relief that the Telegraph chose for the following day to concentrate on the "derring do" aspects of the incident, complete with its "Boys' Own" comic-book style graphic, talking up the bravery of the troops.

It must be stressed that we applaud unreservedly the bravery of these troops, but the bravery was going back for their fallen comrade, not riding the outside of a helicopter.

That activity is not even confined to the military. The picture to the right and the one above show civilian electicity workers on the skids of an MD-500, prior to and in the process of repairing high-level electricity cables. Ironically, it is just this type of helicopter that the Army so desperately needs, the "Little Bird" to which Booker referred to in his column.

While other commentators could have given the MoD a hard time as well, however, none did. A media that so lacks perspective and judgement that it is besotted with "Big Brother" fell for the "derring do" story. It shelved its critical functions and went for the easy option, letting the MoD completely off the hook and a "heroic failure" go unchallenged.

And that is important.