Watch: When Malnick met the ministers...
31 March 2010
Pi News Editor Edward Malnick (UCL English) interviewed Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis and Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammells on 15 March about 'Why we are in Afghanistan'.
Here he relays in his own words what happened next...
"It isn't every day that a student journalist is offered an interview with two government ministers. In fact, during my time as politics editor of UCL's official student paper Pi, I had a number of requests for such meetings turned down. For this reason I approached the telephone call on 15 March from the Foreign Office with a degree of caution.
It came the day before Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis and Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell were due to talk to UCL students on 'Why we are in Afghanistan' as part of a campus tour. We were the fourth stop.
During the previous week I had contacted the Foreign Office for more details about the tour and asked the Conservatives for their views. The Tories suggested the phrase 'panel debate' used by the Foreign Office was misleading, as there weren't differing views on the 'panel'. They also questioned the timing of the events, which began in December 2009.
So when I received a call the night before the debate asking if I would like to interview the ministers, and if this meeting could be filmed for the Foreign Office website, I was slightly sceptical. The ministers were coming to UCL to push a particular line and it appeared as if they wanted me to extract this from them. Although Pi Newspaper does not push a particular political view, we have developed a general rule of not providing simple public relations articles for any political party or commercial organisation. I felt that I could only agree to the interview if I swotted up sufficiently on the facts surrounding the war in Afghanistan and the widespread criticisms that have been made of the Government's treatment of UK troops.
"The interview lasted over 15 minutes as I invited the ministers to defend their record on Afghanistan and the accusation that these talks were simply a case of Labour trying to win the student vote. The video was not put on the Foreign Office website as such, but appears on its YouTube channel, with two questions and answers missing as they were deemed 'party political'. The Pi Media team were happy to link to the video on our website as well, because the interview was slightly more balanced than simply allowing the ministers to summarise what they planned to say in the event.
However, Bill Rammell's reaction to our questions was surprising. At the end of the interview he walked off without saying goodbye, unlike Ivan Lewis who remained to shake hands. And it was not just us with whom the Armed Forces Minister was unhappy. It turned out that the UK military spokesman Major General Gordon Messenger was also on the panel; I asked the soldier in the question and answer session whether he had personally experienced any of the problems of finance and equipment that have been raised by former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. He responded that you could "never find a military commander to say he has enough" and that there will "always be other bits of kit" that the military would want. He was clear that the Government were always prepared to deliver, although he said there is always going to be a "lag" between identifying a requirement and the equipment coming into operation.
Despite this reply seeming like praise for the Government it was still 'off message', as Rammell's answers to my questions in the interview had shown. The Armed Forces Minister's line was simply that the Government has responded to the threat as it has become more apparent and committed huge funds to the conflict. He turned to the chairman, Pro-Provost Vincent Emery, and made a circular motion with his hand asking him to cut the Major General short.
This action, as if the audience would not notice, contributed to an underlying sense about the Government's visit that the ministers had seriously underestimated UCL students' powers of perception and scrutiny."
Pi Newspaper is part of Pi Media Society. It is dedicated to student news and culture. Pi magazine regularly features interviews with high-profile figures, such as former UCL student and acclaimed film director Christopher Nolan.