J D Davies

The Journalist’s Guide To Writing About The Royal Navy

Inspired by the consistently dreadful coverage of naval matters in the British media, as highlighted by such recent stories as ‘300 admirals and captains for 19 warships’ (thank you, the Daily Fail) and the announcement of the closure of the shipbuilding yard at Portsmouth.

  1. Firstly, and above all, not all warships are ‘battleships’. The battleship is [a] a specific type of warship [b] old [c] big [d] very, very big. Thus to describe a frigate or (worse) a minesweeper as a ‘battleship’ is essentially the same as describing a Cocker Spaniel as a Rottweiler: all three ships are warships, just as the Cocker and the Rott are both dogs, but that’s about as far as the similarity goes.
  2. The Royal Navy does not have ’19 warships’. It has 19 destroyers and frigates, but these are not the only types of warships. There are bigger ones (e.g. helicopter carriers and assault ships) and smaller ones (e.g. minesweepers and patrol boats). There are even some that go under water: these are called ‘submarines’. But still no battleships (see point 1).
  3. And while we’re talking about submarines, a ‘nuclear submarine’ is nuclear powered, but not necessarily nuclear armed. Please don’t scare people needlessly by getting this wrong, as when any of the really ancient nuclear submarines currently in service break down, or when any of the really new and vastly expensive ones being built to replace them, umm, break down.
  4. A dockyard is not necessarily a shipbuilding yard, and vice-versa.
  5. A dockyard is not necessarily a naval base, and vice-versa.
  6. Therefore, the recent announcement of the closure of the BAE shipbuilding facility at Portsmouth doesn’t mean that [a] the naval base is closing (it isn’t) [b] the dockyard is closing (it isn’t, because it already closed in 1984).
  7. The same announcement doesn’t mean ‘the end of warship building in England’. Submarines (which are types of warships, but still not battleships – see points 1 and 2) are built at Barrow-in-Furness.
  8. And don’t try to wriggle out of it by saying you meant ‘the end of surface warship building in England’, because surface warships are still built at Appledore – where the yard is currently building parts of the new aircraft carriers, plus two new patrol ships for the Irish Navy. (Incidentally, these have been named James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; I see some wits in the comments forums on the Irish media have suggested that future ships could be named Oscar Wilde or Bono.)
  9. The Royal Marines are a part of the Royal Navy, not the army. (The clue is the word ‘marine’, which means ‘something to do with the sea’. As in ‘submarine’ – see point 2 – which adds the Latin word ‘sub’, meaning ‘under’ rather than the pale, spotty cretin with no life who messes with your copy for no good reason.)
  10. Every warship is commanded by a captain, but he doesn’t have to be a Captain. He could be a Commander, although a Commander isn’t necessarily a captain, or a Lieutenant-Commander, or even a Lieutenant. He could also be a she. Clear? Good.
  11. A Captain in the navy is a very senior rank; a Captain in the army is a fairly junior one. It helps to get this right, especially if one is invited to wardroom or mess dinners (but don’t worry, you won’t be).
  12. Finally, and just as importantly as point 1: just because you can’t see the Royal Navy every day – either in the flesh or on TV – doesn’t mean that it’s not doing a vitally important job, and is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the nation. Please remember this simple mantra: in extremis, no navy, no Playstations. (Not to mention not a lot of food and precious little oil.) In that sense, the navy is a bit like the people who keep the sewers working: invisible but indispensable. So, yes, a bit like God, if you believe in – oh, sorry, of course, you’re a journalist. So please stop hacking people’s phones and obsessing about royal charters, and get back to the really important business of getting simple facts right. 

Breaking news: Since I originally wrote this blog, the dear old BBC – i.e. the supposed gold standard of journalistic accuracy in Britain, if not the world outside of North Korea – has reported the despatch to the typhoon-hit Philippines of HMS Illustrious, ‘the Royal Navy’s largest aircraft carrier’. Well, yes it is, in the sense that it’s currently the navy’s only ship that was originally built as an aircraft carrier; but as it’s now officially a helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean is bigger, and is thus the largest warship in the Royal Navy.