Unofficial Forces Websites


Anyone else see this?

DEFENCE FOCUS: How unofficial Service websites are putting the frontline online

As more UK Servicemen and women make their opinions known on unofficial websites, Defence Focus looks at the sites and the debate surrounding them. Report by Lorraine McBride.

Hello World: Frontline Online [Picture: MOD]
Five years ago a young army officer known only as Rob and an even more mysterious friend set up the Army Rumour Service (ARRSE), a unofficial bulletin board aimed at serving and former British Army personnel.

Within six months the site was attracting a million hits a month. Now there are some 21,000 registered users.

In February 2006, RumRation, a bulletin board aimed at sailors, was launched as a sister site to ARRSE. It is already attracting 800,000 hits a month.

Meanwhile, Royal Air Force personnel are catered for with the bulletin board e-goat, while many use the Professional Pilots Rumours Network (PPRUNE), which is for everyone involved in aviation, both military and civilian.

ARRSE came to prominence in the national press after Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was quoted in the print press as saying that Britain's presence in Iraq was contributing to the violence. Mainstream-media reporters raided the site for the views of squaddies, finding many agreeing with the General's alleged opinion.

So is this just too irreverent for an organisation that is supposed to be deeply respectful of the status quo? ARRSE co-founder Rob - who uses the online alias "Bad CO" - is at pains to preserve his identity:

"We never give out our phone numbers," he told Defence Focus on the phone before agreeing to a cloak and dagger-style meeting. "I'm a serving officer, and I don't think everybody would view it as a good thing. I could do without the hassle."

Despite the caution, Rob is convinced that many in the military establishment are behind his venture, even if senior officers are not falling over themselves to say so:

"I know they value the information they get," he said.

He claims that even retired senior officers are beginning to use it. Lord Garden, a former Air Marshal and a member of the House of Lords who takes a special interest in the Forces, regularly posts his own messages on the site.

Rob believes that ordinary soldiers value it because they can short-circuit the conventional chain of command, and ensure that their more radical views are not filtered out.

"Rightly or wrongly, there is great mistrust of the hierarchical system. People often worry that their views will be used against them so we offer them the facility to say what they think.

"People using the site definitely respond to what's in the media, but our users can even inspire newspaper stories."

According to Bad CO, the campaign to make it easier for Service personnel to vote was started on ARRSE. He also believes that the mainstream press picked up on discontent over the standard of military housing from the site.

Last February, he spotted the need for a Royal Navy equivalent, and set up RumRation.

"I'm proud of it all. We've even had a couple of weddings following 'meetings' online. It's almost grown out of our hands. I don't think we'd be allowed to stop now.

"The amount of emails we get is lovely. After soldiers died in the Basra helicopter crash, many people sent condolences via our site. We've just had an email from one of the bereaved families thanking us for caring."

RumRation [Picture: Dave Frewin]
But what does the MOD think of these sites?

Robin Riley heads the team responsible for the MOD's online news and imagery, corporate internal communication and Defence Focus.
Writing from the personal perspective of a civil servant involved in MOD communications, he said:

"Many experts agree that the internet is going through a new and distinct period of change, driven by new technology and new thinking.

"Sometimes grouped under the banner term 'Web 2.0', these changes include bulletin boards, blogs, social networking sites, and user-generated content, for example sharing home videos.

"Together they mean that people can express themselves directly and easily to a wide audience, without having to pass through the filter of the mainstream media, the Government, webmasters or other traditional gatekeepers of mass communication.

"Although MOD obviously wouldn't agree with everything you can read on unofficial sites such as ARRSE, I don't see a problem as long as security isn't compromised, and it is clear that the views expressed are personal.

"It's dangerous to take anything at face value. But bulletin boards do allow COs to get a feel for what junior ranks think, as bad news is not filtered out by the chain of command. I think coming generations of Service and MOD civilian personnel might see the ability to express themsleves online as a right, not a privilege.

"These new outlets cannot replace the official channels for communicating Government policy, and holding MOD and the Armed Forces to account - namely, Ministers and Parliament.

"But I believe these new technologies present many more opportunities than they do risks when it comes to staying in touch with our own people. We will be looking at how MOD might engage with these channels, potentially including the bulletin boards, over the course of this year."