How the BBC was deceived by Major Richard Streatfeild's propaganda

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

It was in sorrow rather than anger that John Humphrys interviewed Major Richard Streatfeild on the BBC’s Today programme. Yet it was one of those occasions when Humphrys had every right to be belligerent and furious in his mode of questioning.

Major Richard Streatfeild

What’s more, after Streatfeild departed the studio Humphrys should have interrogated the hapless editor who commissioned the army officer to use the BBC’s flagship news programme as an arm of British Army propaganda and then filed a Freedom of Information act request to discover if the Today blog was part of a government conspiracy.

Streatfeild was a commanding officer in the insurgent stronghold of Sangin, Afghanistan during some of the fiercest fighting and sent back dispatches to the Today programme. At the time these diaries were thought to be candid snapshots of what was happening during one of the dangerous tours of duty and Streatfeild became a poster boy for our brave boys.

But he misled. His radio blogs were nothing more than the worst form of propaganda and were music to the ears of his paymasters at the Ministry of Defence. Now he has left the army and is ready to blow the whistle on what really happened. After picking up his MBE for services to Afghanistan and his demob pay Streatfeild is, he says, finally telling the truth.

Why you may ask? Well, our hero has a book to promote and sell. Please don’t buy it. With his record who knows what will be the truth.

This sorry saga of the BBC being conned emphasises more than ever that on the battlefield as in general life, independent journalism is the lifeblood of truth.

Streatfeild now admits that hundreds of soldiers were sent to the most dangerous area of Helmand Province without a single armoured or mine-resistant vehicle; troops who would have to search for deadly Taliban mines using metal detectors had to train using broomsticks and a quota system for gallantry medals meant top brass won awards, while junior soldiers involved in fierce fighting against the Taliban lost out.

During his interview with Humphrys, the major, who (one might think laughingly) went on from Afghanistan to serve in the MoD’s procurement division, admitted only one discrepancy in his dispatches from the front when claiming that there was no lack of equipment.

Everything else he brushed off by saying that he would have breached operational security by revealing the real facts and his first duty was to the army and the men under his command. This statement should have been the first line of every one of his dispatches.

William Howard Russell of the Times is generally recognised as the first war reporter to send back the unvarnished truth from the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. I am particularly taken by this description of him: “Russell was described by one of the soldiers on the frontlines thus: "a vulgar low Irishman, [who] sings a good song, drinks anyone's brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters."

Russell was blacklisted by the British commander who advised his officers to refuse to speak with the reporter.

His reporting made a difference. Shocked and outraged, the public's backlash from his reports led the government to reevaluate the treatment of troops and led to drastic changes in caring for those with battlefield injuries.

During the first Gulf War I was one of the reporters embedded with the British forces. Embedding was a controversial activity criticised by some parts of the media and the military: one for kowtowing to military censorship and the other for allowing undisciplined William Howard Russell types to observe at first hand what was going on.

Every dispatch I, and all the other embedded media, sent back acknowledged hat reports were subject to military scrutiny. We did not want to give information that would put lives at risk, and this was not just self interest, but we would fight with officers and commanders for the integrity of our copy and the facts they included and most times an acceptable compromise was reached.

What Streatfeild did is a warning. Not just about army cover-ups but about the very principles of reporting and the need for independence and the recognition that scrutiny of the contributors and their motivation is important.

And my reason for writing this? I care.

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