With the change of government, the MOD's attitude to PR changed - for the better! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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With the change of government, the MOD's attitude to PR changed - for the better!

The Cranwell years were never really a great success as far as the Red Arrows were concerned, in my opinion anyway, but that was not the fault of anyone already based at Cranwell. Everyone on the base from the College Commandant downwards had made us feel very welcome and did what they could to help us operate efficiently. There had been a lot of changes since my previous tour of duty as a flying instructor at the College nearly 30 years earlier. At that time the College had only two main functions: one was to train officer cadets and the other was to train pilots. In the intervening decades the College had assumed a whole gamut of additional roles and I found that people tended to keep to their own particular corner of the base and only rarely venture out. The people themselves were different too. In the 1960s almost everyone wore blue uniform; when the Red Arrows arrived in early 1996 a fair percentage of the working population at Cranwell were civilians and by the time we left Cranwell to move back to Scampton at the very end of 2000, a goodly percentage of the aircrew were also civilians of one sort or another.

Almost from our first day at Cranwell the rumour-mongers had started their work again asserting that it was only a matter of time before Scampton was re-opened as a permanent base for the Red Arrows. In fact the Red Arrows remained at the RAF College not for a maximum of two years, as originally announced by the Minister for the Armed Forces on 26 August 1995, but for over four years. Much of the extra delay was caused by the change of government in 1997 and the extensive Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) initiated by the new Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson.

As far as the RAF was concerned the Defence Secretary ruled that there were to be no piecemeal moves of squadrons and units before the final SDI report was published. That seemed to me to make a lot of sense. For once the MoD was going to define the tasks before buying the equipment or redeploying units and personnel. (As I read that last sentence again in 2015, I couldn't resist a wry smile.) It may be thought odd that a simple matter like the basing of an RAF squadron should be affected by a General Election but it was, we were told, a matter of political protocol. Since a government minister had been involved in the closing down of Scampton and the subsequent move of, amongst others, the Red Arrows, a government minister had to be involved in the next move - even if it was a different government. It seemed to me to be a little bit of spin to put off making a decision.

Shortly after that May 1997 election, all RAF Public Relations Officers, and there were quite few by then, were summoned to a meeting at RAF Brampton near Huntingdon, to meet Dr John Reid, the newly-appointed Minister for the Armed Forces (usually abbreviated in speech to "Min AF" so as not the confuse that post with the more senior Defence Secretary). Within minutes of Reid starting to talk, most of us were spellbound by his eloquence and obvious enthusiasm for his new task. Walking informally from side to side of the platform, making eye contact with as many people as possible, with no need for a lectern, and speaking for about an hour without any notes whatsoever, Dr Reid told us several anecdotes that clearly indicated that new "winds of change" were blowing.

He started off by telling us something that was blindingly obvious - had we bothered to think about it. In the 1950s, when I joined the RAF, National Service was still in force and World War 2 was not long ended. The services were huge and almost everyone in the UK knew a relation or friend who was either in, or had been in, or was about to join, one of the armed services. There had been no need to explain then to the great British public what the armed forces were for: it was obvious to all. In the mid to late 1990s statistics showed, according to Dr Reid, that only about one person in 20 knew anyone in the services. The armed forces were out of fashion! There was no longer an obvious enemy, there were far fewer people in uniform and, therefore, it was much more difficult for him, as Min AF, to get money out of the Treasury for defence purposes. It was essential, he said, that we PROs did our very best to keep the services in the public eye as much as possible. (That was before Nine-eleven and all the subsequent 21st Century events.)

Dr Reid told us that on his first day as Min AF he worked very late on his own, with no aides present, in his office at the top of the MoD Main Building in Whitehall. Shortly after midnight, feeling in need of a break, he telephoned down to the MoD Press Office on the ground floor intending to ask for the morning newspapers to be brought up. Not an unreasonable request one would have thought since the daily papers had already been on the streets for several hours. Dr Reid told us that several minutes elapsed before the Duty Press Officer even answered the telephone; when asked why, the unfortunate officer replied that it was a sleeping duty because nothing much happened in the middle of the night. Dr Reid then asked for the morning papers to be brought up to his office.

"Sorry, Minister," the hapless DPO continued, "the papers don't arrive in the building until about 8am - but a digest of current defence stories, compiled by the staff, will be on your desk by 10am."

Dr Reid told us that he was appalled by that news. "How was I supposed to prepare myself for breakfast television and radio interviews if I didn't see the newspapers until mid-morning?" he asked us. There was, of course, no acceptable answer to that. You could hardly expect the Minister to descend from his office in the early hours and wander along Whitehall looking for a newsagent. "Things have changed now," he said, grinning at us as we digested this little story. Then he became more serious. "I can only do my job if you PROs keep me informed of what you're doing. From now on, I don't want to read or hear in the media, or be asked questions by a reporter, about any defence matter that I have not already been briefed about. Good news or bad, I want to know it in advance so that I can either defend our position or make capital out of it."

I could see the brows of the assembled PROs furrow as we digested that gem. We knew that there was no mechanism at that time for junior officer PROs at stations to pass stories to the Minister's office, whether through the normal chain of command or not.

The Ministry of Defence learned about public relations on that day. Actually, my own way of working changed very little. As a self-appointed free agent on Red Arrows matters, I had always kept the MoD fully informed of any planned Team activity that might come to the attention of the national media: whether my faxes had been read was, of course, a different matter.

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