DEFENCE (FRONT BENCH) – CASUALTY REPORTS – 31 March 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: When our troops are deployed to a war zone, are they not entitled to believe that, if anything serious happens to them, their families will be the first to know? Does the Secretary of State recall that, on 22 March, the BBC announced the collision of two helicopters from HMS Ark Royal with a consequent loss of life? My constituent, Peter Scott, is the father of a helicopter pilot on HMS Ark Royal, and he has written to me as follows:

"You cannot imagine the shock and anguish experienced by our family and friends until it was possible to ascertain the safety of our son."

What steps can the Secretary of State take to ensure that reporters do not identify units or formations in such a way that this could ever happen again?

[Geoff Hoon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said previously, we have indicated to our broadcasters, in particular, that they should approach those issues with sensitivity and respect for the families of the armed forces here at home. However, a balance must be struck in terms of his question. For example, as a simple indication, if eight members of the armed forces had been killed, there is clearly a risk that every single family who has a member serving in the Gulf would be in the same position as that so rightly described by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituent. The balance is a difficult one to strike, but we have appealed to the broadcasters to be sensitive and to have regard to the families. Because of modern technology and the way in which the conflict is often reported in real time back in the United Kingdom, people can often identify their loved ones from the material that is broadcast. Broadcasters should therefore exercise appropriate restraint.]