The recent publication by the Rand Corporation of Hew Strachan and Ruth Harris’ The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain caused much fluttering in the doo’cots amongst the usual military commentariat, primarily because it recommended inter alia that national service in Britain might be reconsidered as a means of reconnection between the military and the general population.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
Cue much spluttering from leather armchairs around the UK and legions of Bufton Tuftons waxed lyrical on the pros and cons of such a wonderful/preposterous (delete as applicable) idea.
It’s an endless debate that never fails to excite.
However, much more interesting, to me at any rate, was the report’s thoughts on military-media engagement. I was particularly taken by these few sentences:
“If Britain is to generate a mature attitude to the use of armed force and, if need be, to the utility of war itself, it also needs a more mature debate about defence – one that trusts and engages the public, allows the armed forces to take part in the discussion, and in which the government enables and enhances the structures to permit those conversations.”
In its recommendations it says specifically that “Those in uniform should be able to speak directly to the press, and should receive training to do so”.
Heady stuff, perhaps, but not before time. As far back as I can remember the military-media relationship has been nightmarish, in my opinion. I say this as someone who has been both a PR/media comms operative within the army and an amateurish, pseudo-journalist who likes writing and commenting on military matters. The nub of the problem, I believe, is that media and military have, in general terms, diametrically opposed and long-held positions here: the media operates on the ‘everyone should know’ principle while the army works on the ‘need to know principle’. And the twain shall never meet, not up until now anyway, although arguably they are inching closer albeit at glacial pace.
I suspect the military’s ideal paradigm for the very best media communications of all is the example of the Falklands campaign in 1982. There the media had to rely on the military both to get to the conflict because of its remoteness and for the transmission of their reports back home to the UK. The military accordingly had huge control over journalists and power of censorship over what was allowed to get out of the theatre of operations. That said, it still didn’t always work perfectly, as the infamous reporting of Argentinian bombs failing to explode because their aircraft were releasing them at too low an altitude episode illustrates only too well.
This ideal model of media comms (for the military) was blown out of the water by technological advances. The wider availability of satellite phones, once the sole preserve of military and security forces, untied journalists from the constraints of military overwatch. Now they could go and investigate and report anywhere without the military’s patronage as long as they could get a satellite signal to transmit back home. They were no longer bound by the constraints of being embedded with units as “accredited journalists” or reliant on information from official military spokesmen. I can well remember meeting a well known and ex-regimental BBC journalist friend in downtown Riyadh just before Desert Storm took off. He had already worked out the Coalition plan by applying first principles and was off up country to where he knew the action would shortly unfold, and from where he would report back unfettered. In essence, the military no longer has control over news and comment on military operations.
This loss of control was markedly exacerbated by the explosion of social media in the early 21st Century. Now every junior soldier, sailor and airman/woman could, and did and now does, have access via their mobile phone to a plethora of communications channels which are totally open and uncontrollable. I have written previously in the UK Defence Journal about this, saying this is anathema to chains of command. Strachan and Harris write about public communications being ‘democratised’ by new technologies and they are absolutely right. Military communication with the media is indeed no longer an elite pursuit of the senior hierarchy.
There are serious security implications, of course, of all of this. Not only might unsuspecting or naïve military personnel reveal too much in their communications, their smart technology is eminently traceable, as the Americans famously discovered when information from personnel running with their FitBits revealed the locations of some of their bases. The British army seems to have a downer on individual Twitter accounts at the moment and is trying to drive soldiers to use something called Defence Connect, which may be more secure but will undoubtedly be monitored, which makes it an unattractive option for most. There are even rumours that the ‘Twitter Stasi’ are tracking down and closing renegade Twitter accounts in efforts to retain control.
If true, it won’t work, because the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and efforts to put it back will fail. Instead, and no matter how counter-intuitive it might seem to conventional military minds who, as Strachan and Harris put it, “see the Internet less as an agent for education and democratisation, and more as a threat, home to fake news and trolls”, the military needs to embrace and adapt to the new communications context in which it has to operate. Personally, I have no fears that properly trained and prepared military personnel of all ranks will not to be able to hold their own in talking to the media where appropriate.
Which brings me back to the Rand Corporation report, which I think is both timely and bold in tackling this and other issues.
The MoD’s PR efforts have been howlingly awful over the years, and we could take lessons from both the French and the Americans on how they do it much, much better. The army’s current perceived approach to social media will not succeed. Most journalists will, by and large, give the military a fair crack of the whip if brought on board and not treated with suspicion. If we truly do wish to reconnect the armed forces to the general population then the MoD in general, and army comms in particular, have to grow up a bit.
We should let our soldiers, sailors and airmen/women speak and have confidence in them.