The forces are in need of more black recruits and a better race relations image, says BRIAN DEER
If the Earl of Arran has a blind eye and a telescope, he could last week have replayed Admiral Lord Nelson's celebrated stunt. Flanked by a brigadier, an air commodore and a naval captain, the undersecretary of state declared to an assembly of journalists at a Ministry of Defence press conference that he could see no racism in the military.
"I firmly don't believe there is an enormous amount of racial discrimination in the services," said the Eton-and-Balliol-educated earl. "The armed services have done all they can to stamp out racism."
The minister's late-afternoon meeting appeared to have a threefold purpose. First, to nudge into the public domain an awkward report from Peat Marwick McLintock, management consultants, on ethnic minority recruitment. Second, to announce yet another government advertising campaign, to win ethnic minority recruits. Third, to implicitly head off alleged discrimination cases being brought by two black former soldiers.
In fronting this new campaign, the ninth Earl of Arran was on a particularly sticky wicket. The management consultants found that racism is widely-regarded as endemic in the armed forces, with 60% of Afro-Caribbeans and 49% of Asians saying they would expect to encounter racial discrimination, bullying or abuse.
Arran's view was that such misconceptions were caused by unfair media reports. "We will in no way tolerate racial discrimination," he declared, to the nodding approval of the brigadier. "Where it is found, those involved will be subject to the full severity of the disciplinary processes."
But the report also showed that among those ethnic minority civilians who had gained first-hand experience of the services - through army cadet corps, for example - the numbers who thought they would experience racial discrimination didn't diminish, but rose to nearly three in four Afro-Caribbeans and two in three Asians.
Moreover, although the management consultants were barred from speaking to ordinary service personnel about racism, even by talking to senior officers and recruitment staff a picture of racism came through.
Against this background, it is less than surprising that recruitment among ethnic minorities remains abysmally low. Provisional figures issued at last week's meeting revealed that of 78,975 applicants for the armed services last year, only 808 were black and 379 Asian. Only three blacks and two Asians applied to be army officers.
How many were successful remains unknown. Brigadier Simon Lytle, army recruitment director, said such statistics were not kept for blacks and Asians - adding, to sniggers from the back of the room, that this was also true for "the Scots or Irish". Air Commodore Peter Oulton, director of air force recruitment, however, helpfully said that he knew a black warrant officer - interestingly named O'Neil.
But the government has determined that the position must quickly alter. Population changes have produced a slump in the number of young people available for military service and unless black and Asian recruits are found, there will not be enough people to fill the service posts.
To tackle this, Arran announced a campaign to project "a more positive message" at ethnic minority youth. "Many servicemen and servicewomen from the ethnic minorities are already pursuing successful careers," said a ministry hand-out. "We intend to give greater publicity to their achievements as an encouragement to others."
Unfortunately, the sort of publicity on the horizon may not be the kind of which Arran approves. The Commission for Racial Equality is backing two alleged discrimination cases.
Case number one concerns Winston Lindsay, a former Grenadier guardsman. Last Monday, an industrial tribunal in London said that it would hear, probably in March, a complaint brought by Lindsay, alleging that he was refused re-entry to the army last year on the grounds that he is black.
Lindsay, aged 25, was discharged from the army because, it said, he had not disclosed a conviction for actual bodily harm before he enlisted. The offence was discovered after Lindsay had gone absent without leave - provoked, he said, by 10 months of racial abuse from Guards officers, NCOs and other soldiers in his regiment.
Neither Lindsay nor the Commission for Racial Equality will comment on the case until key defence ministry documents are disclosed. But it appears that his argument will rest on evidence that white soldiers in similar circumstances have been treated differently.
The second case involves Stephen Anderson, who was discharged from the Devonshire and Dorset regiment on the grounds of alleged flat feet. In 1987, he too went absent without leave - claiming he had been subjected to racist taunts and beatings. The commission argues that the army procedures that pushed him out did not conform with natural justice.
Whatever the outcome of the cases, they are certain to attract attention to alleged army racism, and can only reinforce the hostility and suspicion felt towards the services among those ethnic minority groups that the new advertising campaign is intended to attract.
It is clear that Arran's copywriters will have to come up with something slicker than Peat Marwick McLintock did to dispel this hostility. "The army," it reported, "is particularly associated with service to the community, danger, keeping the peace, early management responsibilities, commitment for life, good training for a trade and discriminating against Afro-Caribbeans and Asians."