The Media War

Ladies and Gentlemen, while I was looking around the boards I noticed a post on the Oxford Coroner which was also linked to the death of the ITN reporter. In summary the Oxford thread was about the good work done by Nicholas Gardiner and the death of the ITN thread was about Terry Lloyd. In essence there was much discussion on the rights and wrongs of the media in modern day operations.

It strikes me that we as an Armed Force are losing the Media War, fair enough we have won a few skirmishes but ultimately we are losing the war. If there is a problem then we need to fix it and I believe there is a problem.

Fundamentally, as an entity, HMF are pretty bad at dealing with the media. We have had our finger burned several times and we are terribly shy about what we show of ourselves. But why is this?

Let's look at the facts:

We are a large, public Multinational Organisation with huge assets in equipment, funding, property, R&D, Training, Communications and personnel.

We are diverse. By and large, we reflect the society we recruit from and have no hang ups on who we recruit as long as they meet our testing standards. We do discriminate against those that are less able simply because the nature of our business requires and individual to physically and mentally able.

We are progressive. The Armed Forces are nothing if they do not develop, adapt and overcome. An example is that we are not longer cutting around in Red or green tunics marching in line towards the enemy.

We are technologically advanced. Ok, I accept that some of the kit we have got is older than Noah and really could do with an upgrade but the majority of it suits the purpose.

We are at the forefront of development in our field. Many nations come to us to train and develop as we are seen as the world leader in what we do.

We have some of the best and brightest minds that this country has to offer. I kid you not, think about your average 45 year old working some 9 - 5 in the city and then compare him to your average Brigade Commander. In line with this we have some of the hardest working individuals who are motivated not by money but by a sense of worth.

We are a force for good (tagline I know, but it sums up a neat little point). We are often used as the means to get the undesirable done. Be it regime change, (in civvy comparrison, think Souros and the Exchange Rate Mechanism exit) disaster relief or support to a Civilian Power (Fresco).

We train and develop our most treasured resource so that they may advance in their career and more often then not it is best man for the job not best mate for the job.

If we were a public company providing a service to the community, we would be widely tipped at as a safe investment and would no doubt be leading the other Blue Chips on the FTSE 100. Richard Branson would have nothing on us.

So why is it that when we come to dealing with the media, we are so inept. Ok I expect a number of you think that all journo's are scum and they deserve a swift kicking whenever you chance upon one. However, they are doing a job and I am sure firms like ICI, Virgin and Sky get a great deal of stick in their own field for a variety of reasons. But they can put on a good public face and point to all the good they do. We cower behind media officers expecting them to pick up the ball and run with it. It is like saying to someone "oh you once saw an explosion, go and knock up a mousehole charge will you old chap".

Any soldier knows that to fight a battle successfully, you fight it on your terms, on ground of your choosing and at a time when you decide. I think this is where we fail terrbily.

We react to media and are not proactive in our approach to actively engage with them. I refer back to the original post that spurred my thoughts. A reporter dies because he is way out of his depth in a situation he did not understand. What did we do to prevent this from happening? Maybe a few briefings, maybe a few days on a hostile envionment course. But really what is that worth?

We know what to expect, we train for it week in week out. We know the sharp end is known as a sharp end because it is just that. We know when our job gets to the actual crunch, its a nasty messy affair where people die or are destroyed physically and mentally. A journo from London knows that it can get quite uncomfortable on the tube in the morning, but does not know the searing heat of sitting in a 30 tonne beast with all hell going on outside and all he can hear is the rather alarmed voice of his commander.

So to my point, why do we not engage with the media. Bring them onside and stop fighting them. They are here, we must deal with it but let us deal with it on our terms.

A few thoughts that I have had centre around media courses being run by the Forces. None of this wishy washy, this is a warrior - its good crap. I mean get them out on the ground training. Give them the tools to patch up a injured soldier next to them, actually make them integral to the unit. Spend some time, getting them fit, brief them on the situations they will face. Hell thrash them over an assault course. Vehicle recognition, comms, SOPS and so on. I am not thinking I am celebrity boot camp get me a better agent, I am thinking genuine training that means they come to the party not actually being as much of a hinderance as they are viewed.

It is a small step that might open up avenues to actually getting proactive press that can really explain to an ungrateful public that these young men and women are outstanding and that the service their "firm" provides is second to none.

With regards to funding, you make it a prerequisite for anybody embedding or reporting during the time of operations and their individual firm should pay. Let's be honest, it would not cost that much to run and therefore no great shakes for the smaller media outlets.

My fellow arrse's what are your thoughts?
like you, I agree that there is much to be gained from a fuller relationship between press and military. Most senior officers are preoccupied with 'taking the initiative' in a battlefield sense, but terrified of doing so with the media, despite all the lip-service paid to media ops on courses. Exceptions to this rule - like General Mike Jackson - are rare but soon become media stars.

The approach you favour has been tried before with various embeds for specified periods of conflict. The biggest example was the US military 'boot camp' for 300 journos heading for Iraq in 2003. For more mundane embeds, like someone going out to Basra for five days, no such training is offered. Many journalists would not be given the time by their bosses to do military training, but I suppose the Army could always make it a condition of going on an embed that someone be certified as having done the course.

In general I think time and resources are the problems to be overcome in making this work better. News desks might not let people go for weeks of military training and units might not want to give it. The British, unlike the Americans, still insist on using 'minders' and the limited numbers of these also places severe constraints on how many journalists can be allowed + for how long. Since mutual trust usually requires time to build, the whole thing is undermined as a result.

There are other issues to be overcome too - the military media ops officer is not usually a specialist (TA PIO's excepted) - and a journalist who covers defence or conflict is quite likelty to have more experience of such facilities than the officer minding them. As a result the escorts are often under-confident and the chain of command gets risk averse. The journos requests get refused and they start getting in an ugly mood because they're not getting stories.

The key I think lies in the MoD working with the main news organisations to build up a group of 'embed cleared' journalists who would be offered various trips, courses and extras, building up a closer relationship with the forces. They would be allowed to go to units 'un-minded' but, if they infringed the rules, would have their 'embed clearance' withdrawn.

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