London, May 1, 2009
A chilling insight into the military mindset -- as explained by Nato’s leading media strategist Jamie Shea -- provided an unexpected but revealing talking point at UNESCO’s annual world press freedom day debate on the international media’s role at times of war. Shea spoke in support of the motion that “governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media” – a motion that carried the day by a majority of more than two to one.
Set against Shea and his supporters was a powerful line-up of international journalists and media campaigners who argued that local reporters in conflict zones were increasingly managing to provide a reliable alternative service to that offered by the western news media.In addition, an army bloggers and citizen journalists complete with mobile phones and video cameras were mounting a credible fight back against governments and their media allies. But what dominated the opening of the debate (at the Frontline Club, London) was Shea’s brutally frank exposition of how Nato governments were becoming increasingly successful in managing the flow of information from the military to the public. Shea, who was Nato’s spokesman during the Kosovo conflict and is now director of policy planning for the Nato secretary general, said that governments had proved “quick learners” after the damage inflicted on Nato partners during the war against Serbia. Developing and maintaining a media strategy was now taken as seriously as fighting the conflict itself. The objective was to create a story line designed to keep journalists “as busy as possible”. “Keeping journalists occupied is the priority; feeding them constant briefings so they don’t have much time to go off and find out information for themselves”. Media handlers realised that embedded journalist liked to put on battle fatigues suggesting they were “part of the action”. Regular press tours to theatre were another priority, coupled with access to privileged interviews but the military had to make sure the journalists were “flown home before they have time to look around” for themselves in operations such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Academic experts were also invited on tours and encouraged to write “influential op-ed features and columns which are often sympathetic to our case”. Shea was equally forthright in defending the media network which Nato was developing which included Nato television, a Nato radio station and Nato newspapers. Nato tv, established two months ago, was a feed providing video material from locations to which the media did not have not access themselves and which was free of charge. “We have people employed by Nato, interviewing people employed by Nato…We must not give the impression that the people doing the interviews are independent journalists…It is important they should not call themselves journalists…It is ok as long as you put on the label that the origin is Nato”. Shea insisted that he was not advocating that governments should win the information battle. Ministers and the military needed the media to keep them on their toes. “I believe in a free press putting us under pressure. We have not won yet, but we are getting better all the time from a government perspective…But lots of positive stories don’t add to winning in the long run…There is still a stalemate in Afghanistan and the Taliban is still strong”. Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC defence correspondent, supported Shea’s thesis that the military had the upper hand. Wars had created a sellers’ market in news. Reporters sent out at huge cost to combat zones and embedded with the military had to produce stories to justify their existence, giving governments extraordinary scope to manipulate the story lines. Very few bloggers or citizen journalists could get to combat zones. Who really knew what was happening in the villages being bombed in Afghanistan? “A sellers’ market in news has given governments massive scope for controlling the media…I think government are winning more often than they used to”. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, opened for those who believed that governments were losing the propaganda war during military operations. He said there were dozens of examples of journalism which smashed the idea that government were controlling the international media. Local journalists and bloggers were lifting the veil of secrecy which governments hoped to wrap around bombings whether in Gaza or the market places of Iraq. The spirit of independent journalism was alive and well and new technology assisted the struggle to avoid the censors. Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera’s English correspondent, was convinced that governments were losing the battle because there were more news outlets than ever before and more ways to access the truth. A blogger in Baghdad with a “clapped out computer and a dodgy generator” had continued giving a street view at the height of the conflict in Iraq. “Technology, so long the Achilles heel of the modern news media, is now one of our biggest assets, because cameras, mobiles phone, computers etc are getting smaller all the time. And people giving us eye witness accounts are one of our biggest assets”. Realising that the “shock and awe” of his opening remarks about the military’s prowess in taming western media had made life difficult for those speaking against the motion, Jamie Shea did commiserate with journalists. Once a conflict was over journalists moved in and started their investigations but at the very moment the media had access, governments “switch off their media operations and move on” which often meant information was difficult to obtain. The media had not been helped by the decline in specialist defence correspondents. “All too often they have been replaced by generalists who don’t have the expertise to ask the right question or know where to find the information. I do believe in governments putting more people into their media operations…Governments are not firing press officers but in an economic down turn, newspapers are firing journalists…I do hope the media put in more people as well in order to balance it out. “Governments should only win the media battle in non-democratic states; in democracies they should be up some of the time, down some of the time…This is a cricket match which requires checks and balances and opposing forces. “What governments are doing to improve media operations is not sinister; it is not sinister to finance public information; ninety per cent of the information which goes out is accurate and is of use to journalists…But if governments are not held to account, they will become uneconomical with the truth”. When it came to the vote, the motion that “governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media” was approved by 38 votes with 15 against and nine abstentions. END