A Better Basra
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of my work was my task to produce a ‘communications strategy’ for Her Majesty’s Government’s (HMG) efforts in southern Iraq. I had no idea what one of these was, and suspected it would open a can of worms at a time when all I wanted to do was get on with the job – the task was a huge frustration.
It baffled me that previous press officers had survived without even having a television in the building. I even ordered one, but it never came. Staff at the compound didn’t even get to see British or other newspapers, were not exposed to reference books, nor did they have easy access to key papers. One of my priorities was to get on with informing the people working on the base about how they were viewed by the outside world (over the walls and beyond) and how and why this was crucial to their success. It was my first real lesson in why perceptions count and I was immediately passionate about it.
Aside from me, the military and the US Embassy Office both had staff tasked with doing press work, but they rarely connected. Iraqi visitors would go through unnerving and uncomfortable security checks to get onto the FCO compound and would experience the whole rigmarole again the following day when they visited the American compound – there was no coordination of effort. The 35-strong military Information and Media Operations team based at the Air Station seemed to me to be providing stories from the frontline to British tabloids that would inform the British public about the ‘war’ (less the reconstruction) and serve to mainly boost army recruitment. There was no Basra-focussed media monitoring at all that was being disseminated to staff, let alone to the Consul General. Communications were frankly in a frightful state. But although I knew that writing a strategy was the absolute right thing to do, I was too busy rolling up my sleeves and fire fighting to take it on and initially I resented the task.
It was only when I was offered the services of a consultant to come and help write the strategy that my professional pride felt bruised. I never forgot my own resistance to the idea that an outsider would come to carry out what everyone senior around me was saying was a ‘crucial element of my work’. The more I discovered about their chosen man, the more I hated it. He had a Germanic name, would be paid a small fortune (by my standards), was a former Royal Marine and would be there to solve the whole communications strategy dilemma within just two weeks. So in the weeks before he arrived I spent every spare minute writing what I thought was a first class communications strategy for HMG’s efforts in Southern Iraq. Uncovering a number of other strategies from other places to use as templates (I even picked up one from Sierra Leone), I spent several lonely sessions exploring the notion of strategy in terms of communications and media. But from the moment Dieter arrived, any insecurities I felt melted away and he became part of the team instantly.
One thing that was pretty clear was that having an HMG strategy for Basra might in itself give the wrong messages to our coalition partners. Led by the General and the Consul General and backed enthusiastically by Tony Blair, the Better Basra plan was just beginning to take shape. Leaders of all the missions in Basra, including the Danish and the Americans and to some extent the UN, were beginning to gather at increasing regularity in the rather grand conference room on the first floor of the Provincial Reconstruction Team building to discuss what would indeed make a Better Basra. The British were driven by Blair’s idea that ‘we must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy to defeat those that threaten us’. Despite an impressive gathering of coalition partners around this, several of us pointed out that the important actors in this – the Iraqis – were missing.
I was tasked with presenting our communications strategy to this merry bunch, but felt quite strongly that the process should include the Danes and the Americans at least – and we would face potential disengagement from them if not. And so began a lengthy period of consultation which took up much of my 100 days in Basra. The text now required approval from Washington and Copenhagen and a complexity of British players and would face the inevitable compromises as a result.
In amongst all this I was experiencing my first bout of media visitors. Because a stop at the FCO compound always included an overnight stay, when I had visiting journalists in town they required 24/7 babysitting. The CNN crew sounded hollow laughs when our security manager told them they should move to hard-cover if we came under attack. ‘We are journos’ snorted Michael Ware, a rough tough Australian reporter who had lived in Baghdad’s red zone amidst bodies burning on the street, ‘when we hear an explosion we rush out with cameras’. The BBC’s Newsnight team were slightly more compliant, although – in defiance of the rules – a camera woman filmed as the helicopter landed at the base in the early hours of the morning – making them immediately unpopular. My guests were met by me and/or Jason, the Arabic Spokesman from the Foreign Office, at the helipad, and waved off by us when they left; we dined with them and accompanied them around the base. It was we who arranged people for them to interview and made sure they had clean accommodation, fresh sheets, functioning air conditioning, diets catered for and their laundry done.
A Newsnight presenter managed some interviews about our civilian work in Basra in the pretty Palace gardens, (we were housed at Basra Palace, one of Udday Hussein’s former compounds), before I had to deliver them back to the military to cover ‘the war’. Although delighted that they were getting more of a balanced picture, it always horrified me when journalists filmed in the gardens. As the rest of Basra suffered water shortages – despite the flowing Shatt-Al Arab waterway – our green grass and blooming foliage grated somewhat. Perceptions were bad, and being housed in the palace of a former oppressor wasn’t a good move. Time consuming and fraught with frustration, the visits of the Newsnight team and others, were nevertheless all great practice for the arrival of the Radio 4 Today team, who were set to carry out live broadcasts over a number of days, and played a part in one of the most eventful weeks in my life. Although there was no option but to continue with my ‘day job’ as press officer, once I understood the nature of taking a strategic approach to my work (instead of being purely reactive), it felt odd operating in the absence of strategy and writing this became my main preoccupation or ‘evening job’. We comforted ourselves in the fact that we generally knew which direction we were going as media professionals: trying to focus on the reconstruction efforts; the good things the British and coalition were doing – which I have to say were many. We scrabbled around getting facts and figures on how many electric cables had been laid, how much of the marshes had been recovered for the marshland Arabs, and the success of the water treatment plant. We wanted to talk, not simply to the British media, but to international, pan-Arab and local journalists – we had a hunch that they ALL mattered. Jason spent his life on the phone and even had friendly exchanges with the Iranian Al-Alam correspondents based in Basra – my eyebrows remained raised over that one.
Our Iraqi journalist contacts were beginning to tell us about how the Iranians were ‘influencing’ what they produced. Several of them, although disillusioned with how the war was going, had suffered so badly under Saddam and lost so many in the war against Iran, that they felt that our efforts were their only hope. The fact that they risked their lives by even talking to us was never taken for granted, and the bravery of the Iraqi who printed my press release on Margaret Beckett’s visit to Basra word-for-word in his newspaper, won’t be forgotten.
One of the toughest tasks in writing our strategy for communicating was getting the military on board. If this was clearly a strategy that represented the UK approach, we needed them to agree it. So an unlikely bunch consisting of myself, Jason, Dieter and David planned a weekend away at Basra Air Station to ‘engage with the military’. The communications team consisted of me – a bolshie vegetarian diplomat that the Consul General had once called a ‘tree hugger’; an Aussie development expert complete with yellow T-Shirt and flip flops; a young Arabist and former journalist who had spent time in Yemen; and a former Royal Marine in designer clothes and suede shoes hardly fit for the desert. If I had felt uneasy about the arrival of a solitary consultant, how would the top and medium level brass at the military headquarters receive the four of us? A more bizarre group of civilians in a war-zone you will never find.
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