Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Loose lips sink ships

A controversial news story flared into being last week, before burning out almost as quickly as it emerged.

Military men falling out with the news media hardly represents a new phenomenon - I imagine that the ghost of Lord Raglan is beating the zombie William Howard Russell about the head and shoulders with his severed arm as I type - but it is unusual in this day and age to see a senior military officer speaking out, as General Sir Michael Walker did last week.

Predictably, the representatives of the news media hit back and since then the issue appears to have fallen off the radar.
However - for me at least - it was brought back to mind by comments by Royal United Services Institute Director, Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold in the latest edition of the RUSI Journal:

When the news broke of the Black Watch deployment, there was widespread criticism of the allegedly political decision to move them from MND(SE) [Multi-national Division, South East]. There was little sensible examination of the possibility that the decision had been, in the first instance, military. If the decision could be portrayed as political, then it could be used as a stick to beat either President Bush or the Prime Minister over the head; doubly satisfactory one might guess in the final days of the US Presidential election. It was very clear that if the Black Watch (or even perhaps the Royal Marines who were deployed with them) came into acute danger and suffered casualties, then the politicians who made the decision would be to blame. An attack on the Black Watch could therefore cause political as well as material and human damage. The insurgents would have to have been very thick not to notice that the Black Watch had become attractive targets. Similarly, the outporing of grief that was magnified and highlighted in the media after the first three deaths would have confirmed in the insurgents' minds that they had found a vulnerable spot. The media needs to take great care to limit themselves to reporting the news, rather than being tempted to make it as well. Some people who spoke to the media might perhaps have said less, whilst some who reported might have been more thoughtful.

I shall try to refrain from indulging in a rant about supposed media bias. Not only would it be somewhat in conflict with the proposed ethos of this site, it would also be thoroughly unproductive. The words of one of my tutors, urging the occupants of the lecture theatre to remember their John Stuart Mill in dealing with the relationship between the military correspondent and the armed forces also ring in my ears. On the broader issues I shall limit myself to stating that I find little, if anything, with which to disagree in Admiral Cobbold's comments.

There is, however, the question of process and I feel that this represents fertile enough ground for criticism. The speed with which the phrase "Triangle of death" - hitherto unheard of - became ubiquitous across all broadcasting outlets speaks volumes about the incestuous nature and general superficiality of too much of the broadcast media in the UK - especially in the case of 24-hour news channels. More worrying still was the fixation of almost all media outlets on the ephemeral concept that British redeployment was a political ploy to help President Bush win re-election. My point is not that the British media nurses a bias against President Bush. My point is that the notion itself was ridiculous - as a moment's sober reflection could have discovered- and, more importantly, it was never explained (and has not been and will never be). British redeployment elicited virtually no coverage in the United States and was to all intents and purposes a complete non-issue. Even if it had been, how it was supposed to influence American voters is utterly beyond me. Yet the groupthink continued to churn out the same message. If anybody working in the journalistic profession can furnish me with a coherent explanation of quite how the redeployment of a British infantry battalion a few miles north inside Iraq was ever going to snatch the Republican Party electoral victory, I would urge you to email me and I will happily reproduce your argument on this site for general consumption.

This leads to two further points.

The first is that there was a legitimate line of criticism and inquiry that emerged - or perhaps re-emerged - through the redeployment of British troops to support the American effort: Namely the fact that said redeployment could and should have raised serious questions over whether or not the Coalition has enough troops on the ground in Iraq to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign. To the best of my knowledge, this was never explored in any depth. Force levels were referred to only as a route to turn the argument back to the notion that the redeployment was "political" (a patent straw man line of argument - this is the United Kingdom, not Wilhelmine Germany. In a liberal democracy our elected leaders make the bottom line calls. Would the journalistic community have it otherwise?).

Second, the fact that not all troops in Iraq have the same capabilities seemed to escape most of the news coverage. Presenters and correspondents frequently contrasted the presence of 130,000 American troops in Iraq with the 9,000 provided by the United Kingdom. However, the difference between teeth and tail seemed not to be recognised. The defining characteristic of the Black Watch Battlegroup was not that it was British but that it was a "teeth" outfit: Mechanised infantry in armoured fighting vehicles, backed by artillery and Challenger 2 equipped cavalry. Only a minority of the Coalition troops in Iraq fit this profile. The distinction was rarely acknowledged in most of the media coverage of events.

As a rule, I prefer to attribute such things to cock-up rather than conspiracy. The truth of the matter is that while there are undoubtedly fine defence specialists contributing to the news media in Britain today (to give two examples: Newsnight's Mark Urban is emerging as a talented military historian in his own right and Christopher Bellamy who writes on defence issues in the Independent [though admittedly this isn't his day job] has a formidable CV and is the author of a formidable and provocative book on post-Cold War conflicts), one struggles to identify a British Tom Ricks or Dana Priest. All too often one suspects that waters are muddied purely because too many newsmen don't really know what they are talking about (something that has already been flagged up in a recent review as a chronic problem with the otherwise extremely valuable BBC News website).

We live in a liberal democracy and the news media play a vital role in sustaining our polity. That said, while I would hesitate to stick my head into the lion's mouth by demanding overt patriotism and flag-waving, I do believe that there is a duty of care and accuracy in reporting (and indeed a duty to report, as opposed to merely editorialise) and that this duty has not consistently been fulfilled in recent coverage. It may be that even with the finest reporting in the world, the concerns of our armed forces and those of an open and vigorous democracy were ultimately mutually incompatible in this case and that on that basis operational concerns must justifiably be subordinate to open government and an informed citizenry. But because the media perform an important job, because they do wield real power and influence and because in a globalised world how they report what they report can have real and long lasting consequences we should not put up with sloppy thinking, trite sloganeering and willful ignorance. One cannot but feel in this case that when representatives of the National Union of Journalists stridently accuse General Walker of having no right to comment and of projecting his own failures onto other organisations we are bearing witness to the rage of Caliban.


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