Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Fourth Estate

On a related note, it is widely accepted that the various news media will play an important role in the success or failure of Western policy in future conflicts (especially those of a counterinsurgency, LIC, 4GW or what you will nature). Although I have not been uncritical of the way some recent conflicts (notably Iraq) have been reported, the fact of the matter is that I increasingly suspect that the correct way to conceptualise the role of the press is through Clausewitzian friction.

In other words, it ain't going away. And the people who are likely to be most successful will not be those who try to remove or destroy or rail against it - which is a fool's errand - but those who recognise and accept its impact and come up with ways to mitigate its effects. Embedding is arguably an example of this.

The bad news is that in retrospect, the record of press judgement actually doesn't hold up particularly well. In fact, the historical record indicates that in both Gallipoli and the Crimea (two notable cases in which "crusading" journalists are popularly perceived to have "told it as it is") the press actually pretty much muffed it, at least with regard to the Big Picture. This raises the question of whether journalists are motivated by dark intent or whether we are simply dealing with the limitations of the format. A bit of both may be the correct answer, journalists are, after all, human. I have already noted that the case of Tet is far from clear cut, with lashings of blame to go round. In the case of Gallipoli, while hardly the armed forces' finest hour, there is evidence that some of the most noteworthy reporting was motivated by personal prejudice and predisposition. Perhaps a good example of the limitations of the format can be seen in BBC journalist John Simpson's reminiscences, especially with regard to the Kosovo conflict. I don't doubt for an instant that Simpson is an plain dealer and tells it as he sees it. Unfortunately, while reporting from on the ground brings numerous advantages, it can also cause the Big Picture to be missed or badly misinterpreted. Simpson's work brings invaluable insight into conditions on the ground in Serbia during the NATO air campaign. However, as soon as Simpson begins to pass judgement on the broader situation, things begin to fall apart and several of his judgements are simply not supported by the available facts.

This earlier post also flags up some of the problems that have reared their heads of late.

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