Warzones ban

Bad news. The Ministry of Defence has banned Britain’s biggest commercial news broadcaster ITV from frontline.

According to a report in The Times the government has withdrawn cooperation from ITV News in warzones after accusing it of inaccurate and intrusive reports about the fate of wounded soldiers.

There has been a storm brewing recently and the government has been taking it on all fronts, with stories about casualty reports being suppressed in Helmland, warnings of defeat in Afghanistan by senior staff officers and others of troops being mistreated in civilian hospitals back in the UK. Not good.

This only makes things worse. Did a spin doctor come off their axis? While it might feel justified this is the equivalent of putting a sign on the door and saying: this is going badly.

The Times says that the first casualty is ITV’s planned trip to Afghanistan to cover troops marking Remembrance Sunday. Usually a moment in the news cycle when the government can rely of some positive coverage.

ITV sources said last night that the trip had been cancelled because of the row with the MoD.

David Mannion, the head of ITV News, is reported to have written to the MoD and asked for an explanation. He also sent a copy of the letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, a move that is likely to drag Tony Blair into the dispute.

Trouble kicked off last week after ITV broadcast reports showing how British soldiers wounded during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated when arriving back home.

This has been a PR disaster that the government has let happen. The Sun has been all over this as well, as has the Daily Mail. The two papers have both been running campaigns to improve the care of injured troops with stories such as that in The Sun yesterday exposing “the shambolic security that forced Tony Blair to set up a military ward” exclusively for injured troops.

The ITV reports are said to have topped the agenda at a meeting between ministers, including the Defence Secretary Des Browne, and military chiefs.

MoD sources told The Times that there was concern about images showing identifiable wounded servicemen arriving at Birmingham airport by night. It has been suggested that no permission was obtained from the men and that their families may have been caused distress.

ITV only broadcast later scenes from Headley Court, the MoD’s state-of-the art rehabilitation centre where seriously injured personnel are taken. The MoD has accused ITV of a “hatchet job”.

In an email to ITV the MoD’s director of news, James Clark, said it was “as bad a hatchet-job as I’ve seen in years”.

“Cheap shots all over the place, no context, no reasonable explanation. Like the Daily Star in moving pictures. If giving ITN detailed exposure to our people, lengthy briefing and open access results in this, then I dread to think how your editors and producers would look to exploit access to our people in theatres (of war), or our chiefs and ministers.”

That email omitted any specific details of perceived errors.

Following that, the MoD ceased cooperation with ITV by withdrawing access to “embeds”, the much-sought placements for reporters with battlefield units.

Mark Wood, chief executive of ITN, which produces ITV News, told The Times: “We are not happy about the way it has been handled. They [the MoD] have objected to some of our coverage but we haven’t quite worked out what the repercussions are. We welcome any criticism particularly if it is pointing to factual errors or inaccuracies. What we have had is criticism of our coverage which has not actually gone into any detail of what is factually wrong.”