HL Deb 03 April 2003 vol 646 cc1459-61

3.24 p.m.

Lord Glentoran asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many media passes to cover the war in Iraq they have allocated.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, over 2,300 journalists have been registered and provided with media passes by the coalition in theatre. Of these, some 133 print and broadcast journalists are officially accredited war correspondents embedded with British forces.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that precise Answer. Do Her Majesty's Government think that having such a large number of journalists and reporters embedded in the front line is a sensible and responsible way of covering what is a major war conflict?

Lord Bach

My Lords, British forces have a long established tradition of allowing correspondents to accompany them on operations going back to the Crimean War and right up through all modern wars, including the Falklands War and the Gulf War. Embedding journalists may well inhibit those journalists' freedom of movement but it allows our Armed Forces to help ensure their safety. We live in a free society with a free press. When the press report what we like, we never complain about it. When the press report what we do not like, that is when we must come to its defence.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, what action will be taken following this morning's BBC disclosure of what it described as a confidential document restricted to senior officers only?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not aware of the matter that the noble Lord mentions. I hope very much that the BBC will behave responsibly on this aspect as on all others.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us appreciate that the Government are more or less obliged to allow journalists and media personnel to be present in war zones and that they have been present during many wars since the Crimean War? However, these days modern technology makes it appear as if they are reporting events before they have even happened. Many of us are very disturbed by that.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the view that my noble friend expresses is felt not just inside this House but also outside it. However, I am afraid we have to accept that the 24-hour media is a reality with which we must live. One of the dangers of embedded journalism can be that it tends to provide snapshots of the action which, taken together, can produce—I choose my words carefully—a less than complete picture of the wider position. It is important that we do not lose sight of the wider campaign objectives.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the differences between democracies and totalitarian states at times of war is that in democracies there continues an informed national debate about that war and that for that informed national debate we depend upon the courage of war correspondents? Does the Minister accept that we on these Benches endorse what he says about a free media? Does he further accept that the longer we prevent government interference in the BBC and the other media, the better our people will understand what is happening in Iraq and the better the likely outcome?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I accept the basis of what the noble Lord says about a free press. I also accept what he says about the bravery of correspondents, embedded or otherwise. I pay tribute—as have many since yesterday—to the distinguished BBC cameraman, Kaveh Golestan, who died tragically yesterday. Along with that freedom, of course, goes responsibility. It is getting that balance right that many in this House are concerned about.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, would we not be seeing a rather different picture of the campaign if a few journalists were embedded in the Iraqi frontline forces?

The journalists embedded in the frontline are very brave people. However, is not their difficulty that they are inclined—in particular if they are inexperienced—to report every shot as heavy fighting, every wound as massive casualties and every pause as the Army being bogged down? Although we must leave the press entirely free to report events, could we not encourage more of the sense of balance that the Minister has just described? If journalists were covering matters a little less close to the immediate front line and giving more perspective to the broader scene, the result would be totally different from the impression we have been receiving.

Lord Bach

My Lords, at present I am afraid that I have no information as regards what Iraqi journalists embedded in their frontline are reporting. When I do hear something, I shall tell the noble Lord first. The point he asks about is one that I hope I have already made to some extent. We think there is a danger that embedded journalists are trying to provide what are called "snapshots" of the action too soon. That can, and perhaps has, led from time to time over the past couple of weeks to a false idea being given of how the campaign is going.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we have reached the end of Question Time.