The Minister for the Armed Foces addressed a packed and expectant press conference - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The Minister for the Armed Foces addressed a packed and expectant press conference

Another superb pic, overhead Akrotiri in Cyprus in 1998, by EJ van Konginsveld reproduced with his permission. Whilst enjoying this image, bear in mind the skill of the pilot flying EJ - usually Red 10. Having a fine photographer is essential but his talents are wasted unless the pilot can manoeuvre his aircraft onto the right position - safely!

The Lincolnshire Echo jumped the news embargo and splashed the gist of the Minister's speech over its 1st edition front page on the morning of the visit. As we waited in the main briefing room at RAF Waddington for the arrival of the Minister, the journalists present - there were at least 50 but they kept moving around so I couldn't get an exact count - were joking with each other about who had breached the embargo and to what extent. It was certainly not me! In the event, I could not see that any harm was done other than a dented principle.

When he stood up at 11.30am, the Minister read out a lengthy prepared statement which majored on what he described as the main purpose of his short visit to Waddington. He talked about the value of AWACS, the airborne early warning aircraft then based at Waddington; he made passing references to the Kosovo conflict; he made a complicated statement about the Defence Housing Executive which nobody appeared to understand; and, finally, he made the announcement, that everyone in the room was waiting for. The Red Arrows would be moving back to Scampton.

This was, of course, well before the advent of smart phones and social media and when even basic analogue mobile phones struggled to find a signal in 'rural' Lincolnshire. Journalists can be very disrespectful when it suits them. You would have thought they would at least make the pretence of taking an interest in the early part of the speech, but it was only when the Minister reached the subject of the Red Arrows' that the TV cameramen switched on their cameras, the snappers readied their cameras, and the scribblies poised their pens. The Red Arrows element of the Minister's statement actually bore very little resemblance to any of the 'final, final' scripts that I had been given in advance, including the one I held in my hand and which had arrived by fax just before I left Cranwell for the press conference, but it was, nevertheless, music to my ears.

"The Red Arrows have thrilled thousands of people across Britain and the world with their incredible flying skills," said the Minister. "The manoeuvres they do, require tremendous skill, hours of practice, and total reliance on each other as a team that works as one in the air. More to the point, the Red Arrows pilots are not just display pilots. Each one is a highly trained fighter pilot and would be called on to go into battle if we needed them. Many already have battlefield experience. I know the RAF, and in particular the Red Arrows, has a special place in the affection of the local people at Scampton and I am pleased to announce that the Red Arrows will be returning to RAF Scampton on a permanent basis."

After that formal statement the Minister spent the best part of 45 minutes answering questions and then giving a whole series of one-to-one interviews with many of the national newspaper and TV reporters. When challenged by the BBC Radio Lincolnshire reporter about the "U-turn" on Red Arrows permanent basing, Mr Spellar said:

"I don't want to make a political point; the previous administration did what they thought best in the run down from the Cold War and the ensuing defence cuts. We have done a full review of defence needs. We have brought aircraft back from Germany and we need bases for them. My announcement today is very good news for the RAF and very good news for Lincolnshire."

During at least two of the one-to-ones, Mr Spellar, in answer to the inevitable question, "When will the Red Arrows actually move back to Scampton?", replied, "Before the end of this year" and that response was then widely quoted in the media. It is not for me to conjecture whether this was a considered response or a slip of the tongue, or whether the year in question was the financial or calendar year, but it was definitely not what the RAF or the Red Arrows wanted to hear. A move just before Christmas 2000, in the middle of the winter work-up period, was the last thing everyone, including me, wanted because I was keen to retire on my 65th birthday in September 2000.

While Mr Spellar continued giving one-to-one interviews at one end of the briefing room, I moved to the other end of the room and gave interviews with all the media in turn except the Telegraph man. (I have nothing against the Daily Telegraph. I have been a regular reader since 1960. I still get it every day in 2016 and I still do their two back page crosswords except when full-page ads mean they have to be moved inside.) As a result, I did not personally hear the Minister say that the move would take place before the end of the calendar year. In any case, I stuck to the brief I had been given which had made it very clear that we PROs (yes, we still called ourselves PROs when dealing with the media) were not to make any reference to a timescale for the move. I, therefore, found myself in a bit of a quandary when asked to comment on the Minister's pronouncement about the date of the move but, of course, I was well experienced in making no comment without actually using those two words.

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