Affirming naval values: the role of the media

How can the Royal Navy ensure that its key messages make an impact?

Ark Royal leaves Portsmouth on her final voyage

Iain Ballantyne considers the ceaseless campaign that the Royal Navy must wage

Photo: Crown copyright

For many tasked with getting the Navy’s ‘messages’ across to the broader population, the key battleground for the national consciousness is inevitably in the national and regional press, on the TV and in other mass media, rather than in specialist publications. I accept that reality.

Publications such as my own (Warships International Fleet Review), Navy News, Jane’s Navy International and Warship World – a quartet of UK-based specialist naval magazines – preach to the converted. Because of this salient truth, it has been indicated to me by more than one naval officer that, as we are ‘on side’, our audience already won over, the energy of the Navy’s public relations operatives is better spent nurturing coverage in publications such as Cosmo, the Telegraph magazine or Loaded.

Marginal relevance

This creates the curious situation where, in the minds of some, we specialists – who devote our lives to furthering the cause of navies, and the Royal Navy in particular – are regarded as of marginal relevance, in spite of our deep understanding and ceaseless consideration of naval matters. Meanwhile, those who treat us as being of secondary worth (if that) are off chasing the mirage of miraculous conversion to the Naval Cause among target audiences that are for the most part not in the least bit interested.

You can reach some of the people all of the time (the readers of the specialist naval magazines) but not all of the people all of the time (the non-specialist media). Even so, I do not blame them for trying to reach the broader audience and win new converts, no matter how low the yield.

Maintaining the core support

At the end of 2010, in the wake of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), it did seem that the Navy risked losing touch with its own core support. Many of its voluntary advocates in society (retired sailors and marines among them) were very angry at what had been done to their beloved Navy by the coalition government. Some of those serving in the higher echelons of the RN – possibly punch-drunk with the succession of ‘defence spending rationalisations’ forced on them in recent years – seemed not to be as concerned by, for example, the loss of Ark Royal and the decision to axe four valuable Type 22 frigates, as were those in the so-called Wider Naval Community.

The frigates and the Ark (not forgetting the Harriers) were given up, despite the crucial need for them and their sailors, sacrificed in some sort of poker game in which the Navy’s strongest cards – the new carriers, Type 45 destroyers and Astute Class submarines – were retained. A stronger hand was apparently held by the RAF and the Army, and it seemed more important to preserve them than the Navy, which had already suffered heavy cuts under the previous government.

Without a solid foundation of interested support – its home constituency secured – the Royal Navy risked being cast adrift with no anchor. The outrage was so incandescent in the aftermath of SDSR that it appeared the anchor cable might have been severed.

Fortunately, the Navy itself realised it had to open an honest dialogue with its established supporters at the same time as it sought to spread the message beyond the ‘on-side’ congregation. The Senior Service has not been afraid to canvas opinions, some of which – given privately, or publicly via the letters pages of national newspapers, services journals or even in specialist magazines – have sometimes been wincingly forthright in their criticism.

Beyond the goldfish bowl

Building a future for the Fleet requires solid foundations of moral and spiritual support. As it plans ahead, preparing to fight its corner during the next round of defence cuts, the Navy is showing signs of getting its act together in terms of securing core support to build its case on. Beyond the goldfish bowl of the Royal Navy, the reality is that the global naval scene is extremely vibrant, and it remains vital to all our daily lives. Since 1998, when Warships IFR was first published, we have progressed from a world of naval exercises and keeping Saddam caged via enforcement of UN sanctions, through various wars and enduring front-line commitments, to tackling serious problems, such as piracy, smuggling of narcotics, proliferation of WMD and terrorism. All of these have required naval forces, and the participation of the Royal Navy among others. Over and above all of that, the Royal Navy still needs to protect UK trade, safeguard overseas territories and prepare to play its part in warfare on behalf of national and international interests – which all sounds like your usual corporate line, but it’s true.

Libya and beyond

In 2011, the contribution of the Royal Navy to the Libya campaign was remarkable, even if it did not garner much attention compared to the RAF’s efforts. Despite having its surface combatant force slashed, and other key maritime defence capabilities cut, the UK contributed across the spectrum of naval operations, from clearing mines (allowing aid shipments and refugee ships into and out of besieged Misrata), bombarding Gaddafi regime targets (using the 4.5-inch guns of a destroyer and frigates), conducting deep strike against strategic targets (via submarine-launched cruise missiles) and providing a platform for battlefield support strikes (HMS Ocean and the Army’s Apaches). The Navy also, via warships and its helicopters, played a vital role in targeting and intelligence gathering. This essential work was sometimes carried out under fire, for the Navy got in close and for extended periods of time.

In tandem with all this, the naval service was maintaining a huge effort elsewhere in the world, from contributing 3 Commando Brigade and other units to spearhead the fight in Afghanistan, to counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, maritime security patrolling in the Gulf and staging the first of its new long-distance Response Force Task Group deployments.

A story to be told

I do not wish to put an overly glossy shine on things, for the RN is stretched thinner than ever around the world, but there is clearly much to report (and comment) on.

Whatever level people operate at in the media, they can all help the Navy tell its story. I think the key lesson of the past few years has been that neither the support of the British people, nor their understanding of what the Navy does, can be taken for granted – not in an era in which most people, even in this island nation, do not have daily contact with the sea.

Similarly, it cannot be taken for granted, even among the specialist media, that the yarns will always have a positive spin – some stories are bad, no matter how you pitch them – or that complex issues will be easily understood. Whatever branch of the media the Royal Navy is dealing with in its efforts to propagate its message, whether the lowliest specialist-publication shrub or the mightiest media-organisation oak, careful and constant cultivation is required.

Plant the acorns and they will grow.

In 1998 Iain Ballantyne was the founding editor of the naval news magazine Warships International Fleet Review. In 2007 he received a Special Recognition Award from the Maritime Foundation, and in 2010 a Mountbatten Literary Award Certificate of Merit for his book Killing the Bismarck.