Tuesday, December 13, 2005

All the news that's shit to print...

There are a number of interesting counterinsurgency-related posts up at Arms and Influence that are worth checking out.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with the meat of this post, however, in which the US practice of planting positive stories in Iraqi newspapers is condemned on various counts.

It's a tricky area. I tend to feel that in the area of press manipulation the main commandment is "Thou shalt not get caught". Well they clearly violated that one.

In fact since 9/11 itself one of the most curious things is just how woefully incompetent the current US administration has been at controlling and shaping the news agenda beyond the borders of the USA itself. Quite apart from its craptastic public diplomacy, in the first term we used to be treated to things like Rumsfeld openly announcing that task forces were going to be set up to covertly influence coverage of events, not just in the Third World but in places like NATO Europe - and then adopting an expression of irritated bemusement when people living in Europe went, well, mental.

So you could argue that this whole project was doomed from the start and certainly the way in which it was implemented does seem to have been extremely cack-handed and amateurish.

But contrary to general American principles? I dunno. Arguably the Cold War provides a long enough heritage to demonstrate a veritable strategic culture involving American media maniuplation (and, in the case of Radio Free Europe, of the central government losing control, blowing its credibility and everything going arse up at an inconvenient moment).

For my part I'm quite mellow on the issue - the fact is that if it's handled well it can work. Psy-ops and agenda control played a key part in the British COIN effort in Oman. Facts were massaged, good news was boosted, bad news was suppressed or downplayed and care was taken to massage all sorts of unglamorous little prejudices (including religious) to win over support for the government.

It implies that the US government believes the Iraqis to be gullible, unscrupulous, and incapable of handling their own affairs

Well, yes. Or at least some of them. I'm not saying it's a particularly nice line to go down, but media manipulation, if done well, can be an important item in the counterinsurgent's toolkit. As long as you do it well and don't get caught. In this case it was done badly and they were caught. In moral terms though, it's a piece of nastiness I can live with, as long as it works - and I don't think it's especially un-American.

I think one of the more interesting questions to ask is whether, with the proliferation of news sources, media manipulation is not less practical a gambit than it was Back In The Day. Have structural changes made this sort of thing more or less doomed from the start?


Blogger J. said...

I think some of the discontent is that the military lied about doing "press manipulation" when asked about it, and they weren't that clever about doing it through a contractor. As you say, first they shouldn't have gotten caught, second they should have said "yeah, it's a necessary tool in our CI mission." Instead the Army says, no we always speak the truth, and didn't feas up about the contractor. That's what really is annoying.

5:20 PM  

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